Like many, I spend a lot of my work life in meeting rooms.
And so many seem to be set up by people who have never had a meeting in their life.
This is odd, as meetings are one of the most expensive things we do in business, consuming many hours of precious time. A study by Bain reported in Harvard Business Review found one weekly executive meeting ate up 300,000 hours a year, for example.
You’d think we’d want to optimize meeting time, yet we tolerate deficiencies in the physical workplace far more readily than we do in the digital workplace.
I’d like to look at some worst practices / antipatterns about meeting rooms.
Seven steps to a really lousy meeting room
1. Digitally hide your meeting rooms
Even before we surrender to the meeting process, we can inflict some warm-up pain.
There are times when an available meeting room is as rare as a teen without a smartphone. Sometimes it’s down to how they get allocated. Things like the room that Marketing hides from the system so it can’t be reserved, or the personal assistant who books a year of Tuesday afternoons in case a senior manager needs it.
We need more of an Airbnb approach, where free resources get promoted and re-used. Sometimes people don’t need a full meeting area, they just need a quiet place for a huddle.
2. Physically hide your meeting rooms
Do your meeting rooms have cute titles, like using the names of your brands or famous people?
It’s the kind of idea that sounds great when designing the office, but makes them harder to find later. Imagine a big hotel that handed over a room key and said “You’re in the Escher Suite — good luck.”
“Room A1, A2, B1, B2” etc. might be dull, but at least you have a sense of direction when trying to find it.
Access can also be an issue. I once went to facilitate a focus group where nobody showed up. It turned out all the poor participants had been locked out in the cold because their security passes didn’t work for that part of the building. Guess what their first suggestion was?
3. Limit interactions
Q: What’s the difference between a meeting and a workshop?
A: In a workshop, you do exactly the same things as a meeting but on much bigger pieces of paper.
The whole point of getting together in person is so you can work together in a three-dimensional space. Telling someone you can’t stick things on the wall because it will leave a mark will only cause frustration.
I ran one client workshop where the only place we could use sticky notes was on a set of sliding doors. Just as we reached a brainstorm crescendo the cleaners approached from the other side and flung the doors open, scrunching our notes into a shower of falling leaves.
Kudos, then, to companies that make a whole wall a whiteboard.
4. Lock down the layout
Given meeting rooms are a scarce thing, you’d think companies would try to make them versatile. At least with enough leeway to move tables and chairs. Yet sometimes there is a bolted-down boardroom table of vast proportions with only four people sat around it, like a scene from Downton Abbey.
You can go too far with versatility though. A supermarket I visited had a meeting room that doubled as the break area. During presentations, a steady procession of people would sneak in with a mug of tea because the only place to keep milk was the fridge at the back.
When advertisements show audio-visual kits, they never show the cables. They never show that noodle fest that eventually sprouts from every meeting console.
And the worst bit is when the stumpiest cable of all is the one that goes to the projector. At home we may routinely cast wireless images from device to the big screen, but at work we still have VGA (video graphics array) to contend with, a standard that reaches it’s 30th birthday next year.
The last straw comes when you finally get everything connected and still have to call the AV guy because no combination of power switches and ‘Input’ twiddling on the remote actually brings the screen to life.
6. TV generation
Have you ever noticed on TV how the actors all sit on one side of a table? Some meeting room designers seem to have adopted this, and design the whole room around a teleconference screen at the end. Even if you’re not using it. You end up talking to the screen rather than, you know, the real people that you’ve taken the time to meet up with.
7. The coffee march
It seems such a small thing, but meetings need coffee. Often it’s during the break where the actual decisions get made.
Good companies know this and put OK coffee in the meeting rooms but really good coffee a short stroll away. Some companies put the coffee so far away that I’ve known participants who never made it back.
I guess that’s another way to get decisions made.