Do you ever walk into a meeting room and just know that it is going to be a looooong day? I had this experience recently in a large board room where a small non-profit group I volunteer for meets regularly. The room is in a 1920s building– it’s a tall, stately space, paneled throughout with dark stained wood, with a grand assembly of meeting tables, usually arranged in a U-shape. On this particular day, our group realized we were only going to be four rather than our usual eight or ten. So, we moved the meeting down the hall to our host’s office. Oh, what a wonderfully cozy space – filled with meaningful, colorful art, a jumble of books and work materials, soft chairs, a small gathering table, the smell of fresh-brewed coffee from the coffeemaker and unique mugs to drink it from – an altogether personal and welcoming room. After he gave us a verbal tour of his art collection, we had learned more about our host than we had in the previous two years of meeting with him regularly. And then, our group had one of the most productive, energizing, creative, and engaging meetings we’ve ever had. All of us seemed to be more connected in our discussions and more inspired by new ideas. I found myself thinking about how the differences between the environments dramatically affected the character of our meetings. So, what’s the takeaway?
• Size DOES matter: When a small group of people meet in a big room, all of that empty space can contribute to a feeling of separation between the meeting participants. Large meeting tables literally distance people from one another. A good rule of thumb is eight feet or less between conversation participants. What’s the most comfortable table in your house for conversation? I’m guessing it’s your relatively small kitchen table! With a small group in an oversized room, move the tables until you have a more intimate place to gather.
• To table or not to table: Informal conversation areas are popping up in offices everywhere – comfortable seating where colleagues can grab a seat and just talk, coffee-klatch style, impromptu, without having to reserve a meeting room weeks in advance. Like a living room, these might have a side table for drinks, but no central high table. In more formal meetings, a traditional desk or table feels appropriate – we intuitively want to have the protective feeling of a distinct boundary between us and an acquaintance. By contrast, with your office mates or close colleagues, losing that barrier can create a more connected environment.
• Show me in my best light: Quality of light is a well-studied influencer of quality of space. Everyone loves a view, and sunlight makes everything look and feel good. Open the blinds! In the absence of exterior walls, large pictures of nature, and warm lighting that is flattering to human skin will make a space feel much more welcoming. Stay away from dark, gloomy materials and directional, glare-y light sources.
• “I need some air”: We’ve all been in hot, stuffy meetings where it feels like your next breath will be nothing but what the guy next to you just exhaled. Open a window, or open the air conditioning vent, or if nothing else, keep the door open!
• “I need a drink!”: Professional hospitality is often overlooked for small meetings with familiar faces. Make sure your guests, (and you!) have that cup of coffee, a soda, a glass of water – so people are focusing on the meeting topic rather than how they can’t wait to exit to Starbucks.
Here’s to your next great meeting!