Successful meetings don’t happen by chance. They’re thoroughly planned, well facilitated and fully documented. The ideas discussed are followed through and implemented. Successful meetings involve participants who are focused, prepared for the session and know why they’re there. And successful meetings are held in a space that suits their purpose.
There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all meeting room. Different meetings require different spaces. It doesn’t matter whether your meeting space is your dining room, your home office, a formal workplace, a café, or a specially designed meeting room – there are always things you can do to help ensure the space makes a positive contribution to your conversation. If you make conscious decisions about the set-up of the space, you’ll be able to spend the meeting focused on the work at hand rather than being distracted by something in the environment.
Here are 8 things to think about when you’re setting up a space to encourage conversation and collaboration.
Choose a location that suits your purpose and the tone of your meeting. Think about whether the location offers the right balance of professionalism, privacy, neutrality and formality. It doesn’t make sense to discuss a highly personal topic in a public space; it doesn’t make sense to conduct sensitive negotiations in a space that appears partisan; and it doesn’t make sense to hold an informal chat in a corporate boardroom.
Think, too, about the logistics of getting to the space. Is the space easy to find? Is the parking easy? Does the location seem welcoming?
2. Room size
Choose a meeting room that’s the right size for your group. You need enough space for everyone to sit comfortably, plus enough space for any other work you need to do. A room that’s too small may stifle conversation because it’s cramped and airless. A room that’s too large may seem lonely, alienating and full of echoes. A room that’s too quiet may encourage a sense of awkwardness. You’ll need plenty of room if you want to move around, break into small groups, work with large sheets of paper or spread out in some way.
3. Seating arrangements
Think about where and how participants will sit. Meetings are most likely to be collaborative if participants sit in comfortable task chairs, which are all the same height and style. It helps if participants can see each other’s faces without turning on an uncomfortable angle.
I find that most meetings work best if the group sits around a table, rather than in a circle of chairs or sofas. I think the tables provide both something to lean on and a sense of protection.
If you’re trying to encourage collaboration and discussion, try to arrange the group so that no individual has a dominant position at the head of the table. If you’re the chairperson, you may like sit to the side of the table (not at the head and not directly in the centre). When you arrange the chairs, check that no participant will be looking directly at a sunny window or directly at a projector.
If possible, match the table size and shape to your purpose. A large boardroom table is rarely suitable for an informal meeting of three; a tiny table may be frustrating if you’re juggling computers and multiple papers. Round tables may seem more collaborative, but rectangular or square tables are better for large volumes of papers.
If you’re meeting with just one other person, try to sit at angles to each other rather than directly facing across a table. Sitting directly opposite the other person can introduce a sense of confrontation.
If you’re meeting in your office, don’t sit behind your desk with the participants opposite you, particularly if your desk is covered with papers. Moving away from your desk will help you to focus on the meeting and the participants.
4. Room decoration
The room decoration may influence the way that participants interact. For example, will the colour of the walls have any impact on participants? Will the formality of the space leave participants feeling intimidated? Red walls can make a space feel smaller and encourage more robust conversation. Marble tables may add a layer of formality. Decorated walls may reduce the space you’ve got available for hanging working papers.
Make sure that your meeting space is clutter free and calm. Remove papers that are not directly relevant to this meeting. Remove unnecessary equipment and paperwork. A clutter-free space will help your participants to relax and focus on the task at hand.
Think about the balance between natural light and artificial light.
Natural daylight and being able to look out a window can give people a sense of wellbeing and connect them to the rhythm of passing time. But be careful about strong natural light, which can create glare, make a screen impossible to see and make it difficult for participants to focus on what’s happening inside.
The best artificial light is yellowish and diffuse, rather than white and harsh. Think about whether you need adjustable lights so that you can turn the lights down for an AV presentation.
6. Equipment and facilities
Does your meeting require AV equipment or any other facilities (such as flipcharts, butchers’ paper, whiteboards, stationery, fiddle toys, internet access or teleconference facilities)?
With AV equipment, you may need to check whether the set-up suits your meeting’s purpose – for example, are there cables hanging from the ceiling that may obstruct people’s view? Does the room configuration allow everyone to see the screen? Do you need a particular type of projection format? Do you know how to make the system work? Can you get help if needed?
If you’re using a data projector, try to arrange the room so that everyone can see the screen easily. However, try not to make the screen the main focus of everyone’s attention. Remember that participants are coming to the meeting to talk with each other, not simply to look at a screen.
7. Preparation of the room
Prepare the space for the meeting, and make sure you’re ready before the participants arrive. Depending on the meeting, you may need to set up the room, check the equipment is working, organise food and drinks, find stationery supplies, prepare handouts, print name tags, organise parking and organise security access. It’s frustrating for participants to arrive on time to discover that you’re still wrestling with equipment or collating the handouts. If you show courtesy by ensuring the space is fully prepared, your participants are more likely to participate fully in your meeting.
8. Participants’ comfort
As the meeting progresses, be mindful of your participants’ comfort and look for cues that something needs to be changed. Pay particular attention to airflow and access to water. Take regular breaks so that participants can stretch their legs and re-focus their attention.