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Designing Corporate Meeting Spaces

By Craig Janssen

One of the things I see in offices around the country is the way that corporate meeting spaces prompt people to behave.  Presentation rooms assume podium-based thinking.  There is no subtlety in where the focus should be in a meeting space when you walk in the room and all seats are oriented to face a single speaker position.  Board rooms have their own cues.  There is typically a large table which promotes a hierarchical culture and eliminates flexibility.  The result of these forms is that corporate meeting spaces commonly support presentation and inadvertently punish attempts at collaboration.  Using theatre design terminology there is a clear stage (a power position) and an audience area.  Fixed furniture or not, the basic theatre design of the space defines the experience and most rooms are set up with scale and proportion that tells the person entering how to behave.  And so they do.

I suggest that most conference rooms are unwittingly designed as “event” rooms.  These spaces often have a 2:1 or greater aspect ratio.  This forces the “stage” or focus point to be at one end.  People thus take turns to present their ideas—a sequential process—and the space itself pushes back against efforts for parallel processes of discovery, engagement or decision making.  Adding insult to injury, most of these rooms have zero nearby huddle areas for cohort groups to develop thoughts away from the larger team—or for individuals to pull away to investigate, imagine and collate the information (intellectually, emotionally or electronically) that they explored in the larger meeting.  Hence my naming of these spaces as “event” rooms as they are spaces where audiences come to hear what was preprogrammed for them to hear.

Collaboration spaces on the other hand arguably utilize aspect ratios of 1.5:1 or less and allow multiple stage positions—think black box theatre.  As a result the “stage” position not only may be set up in multiple orientations, but in fact can allow multiple concurrent stage positions.  Collaboration spaces need to consider that presentation occurs from any and all seats both internal to the room and external.  As a result, the layout, furnishings and technology must allow democratic access.  Not only that, but the access can go beyond the walls to facilitate distance collaboration team members, but it isn’t enough just to have bi-directional video. We have to blur the lines between remote and local to allow distant team members to have a quality experience so that they can engage effectively.

Across the country, we are seeing more and more of our clients embrace this discussion. Our hyperlink-driven, participatory digital world isn’t conducive to linear power point slides and a passive experience.  Corporate meeting spaces have to morph to support engagement.

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