Design Spaces That Make a Meeting Work

Take Away

It can be hard to host a good meeting.  Valuable suggestions for doing so are outlined here, here, and here

Resources for meeting hosts only give cursory attention to the physical environments in which meetings are held, but researchers in the social and physical sciences have learned a lot about how meeting space design can make group sessions more effective.  Information that will help you design spaces that make a meeting work follows. 

This article covers the design of spaces for face-to-face meetings, and won’t touch on when it’s best to meet in-person as opposed to virtually, although plenty of articles in Research Design Connections do, for example, here.    We’ll also generally be discussing meeting rooms with walls, in this article, although sometimes it’s clear that research discussed is also relevant to the design of no-wall meeting spaces in the middle of open workplace areas.  We’ll also be focusing on supporting people working with other people in meeting rooms and not individuals going there alone to do focused work.

The design of meeting spaces remains important.  Face-to-face communication is on the rebound (“Cost Efficient, Open-Space Office Designs,” 2013).  Nancy Rothbard, a Wharton management professor, says “‘after conquering the virtual world, workers are rediscovering the value of being in each others' physical presence, making eye contact, smiling—‘reconnecting with people.’”  Heimstra reports on a study completed by Kelton for Cornerstone OnDemand which determined that 60 percent of Millennials would prefer to collaborate in person, while 34% favored online collaboration, and 6% phone or video conference-based collaborative sessions (2013).  When querying the population as a whole the Kelton team found that 72% of those surveyed preferred to collaborate in-person.  Workplaces must support frequent face-to-face communication by user groups.

Meeting rooms also are also a workplace “amenity” that employees take seriously.  Researchers have determined that “more personal control over the physical workspace (i.e., individual adjustments) and easy access to meeting places led to higher perceived group cohesiveness and job satisfaction” (Lee and Brand, 2005). 

Meeting spaces are clearly linked to employee satisfaction.  In 2001, Brill, Weidemann and their BOSTI colleagues published insights gleaned from a review of their extensive client database.  The workplace factors with the strongest influence on job satisfaction and performance (at the individual and team level), include, according to the BOSTI data base (more important items earlier on the list with the most significant first):

  • Ability to do individual work without distractions
  • Support for unplanned discussions, in an individual’s workstation and outside it
  • Support for meetings, which includes the ability of groups to work without distractions by non-group members

Meeting Basics

People who design and manage workplace environments will not be surprised that in an overview article for business managers, Cohen and her colleagues reported that: “effective meeting design warrants holistic attention to all meeting aspects” (2011).   Their study “identified specific relationships to [perceived] meeting quality for several facility quality characteristics, including lighting [more appropriate is better], meeting space [better if it can support number of attendees, meeting purpose, and meeting technological and practical requirements], refreshments, and temperature [more comfortable better].”  Additional details on parameters such as desirable lighting levels and temperature were not provided by Cohen and her team. 

Aspects of the physical environment are not the only factors related to successful gatherings (Cohen, Rogelberg, Allen, and Luong, 2011).  The Cohen team found that “Meetings that start and end on time were rated more favorably than those that did not . . .[meetings] with a formal agenda with prior access [by meeting attendees] had significantly higher perceived meeting quality than either of the other two groups of attendees [no formal agenda and formal agenda without prior access]. . . larger meetings [more attendees] [were] seen as having lower quality. . . having a facilitator is a key factor for larger meetings.”

Cohen, Rogelberg, Allen, and Luong (2011) conclude that “As four of the nine significant characteristics were physical elements, having the right meeting surroundings and environment seems to be crucial.  This aligns well with affective events theory, which proposes that work environment and events impact employee moods and emotions (i.e., affect), which in turn influence work attitudes and behaviors. . . our findings. . . suggest that the meeting environment has the potential to alter affect, which in turn can lead to enhanced feelings of meeting satisfaction.”  Research Design Connections regularly reports on ways that design influences mood and cognitive performance.

Oseland, Marmot, Swaffer, and Ceneda (2011) identify five different reasons for meetings and designers familiar with these reasons can plan meeting spaces that support probable activities.  We gather for:

  • Sharing information. New information needs to be passed on to colleagues, the information may be new and complex or an update of previous information.
  • Making decisions. The key aim of some meetings is to draw a conclusion and sign-off an agreed set of actions or outcome.
  • Generating ideas. Groups may meet to brainstorm solutions to existing problems or generate ideas for new products and services.  
  • Resolving problems. This generally relates to resolving personnel issues and grievances. 
  • Socialising. It is acknowledged that meetings, albeit informal, are held for celebration or simply to catch up on non-work matters.” 

Sessions can be planned or spontaneous, co-located or not, and attended by groups of various sizes—all of these factors must be considered when designing meeting rooms.

Research has shown that smaller groups expend less effort to complete tasks than larger ones.   Staats, Milkman, and Fox specifically tested two-person teams against four-person teams (2012).  The larger groups expended more total effort (more person-minutes) to solve a cognitive puzzle, for example, than dyads working together.  This research has several design-relevant implications.  Designers may want to modify their approach to how they go about doing their own work and use smaller teams.  In addition, workplace developers and other professionals who advice clients on their management practices might want to encourage those clients to work in smaller groups while presenting design options with relatively more meeting areas that gracefully support smaller groups than larger ones.

Meeting Room Basics

A range of centrally-located places for “random encountering, spontaneous meetings, and scheduled sessions” need to be available to collaborators, some of these spaces should be more formal, some informal (McCoy, 2002).

Collaborative spaces must have the tools, technological and otherwise, the group needs to get its work done now and be flexible enough to support the collaborators in the future (McCoy, 2002).

Physically comfortable furniture, etc., is crucial in spaces where people will linger and collaborate (McCoy, 2002).

Group spaces are most effective when they seat 4 to 8 people (Vischer, 2011).  Collaborators are most often found in sets of 4 to 8.

Higher quality work occurs in meeting spaces when users have some control over the physical environment there – for example, over the lights, temperature, and unwanted distractions (Vischer, 2011).  Privacy is essential for most collaborators, so that they can work without being overheard or distractions (McCoy, 2002).

Furniture in Meeting Rooms

Research has established clear parameters for meeting room furniture.

People attending a meeting are most likely to participate if they can make eye contact with the other people present (Sundstrom and Sundstrom, 1986).  People sitting on seats arranged classroom style in rows don’t participate at the same rate as people who are grouped in a more “ring-like” arrangement.  Sundstrom and Sundstrom also report that:

  • People tend to interact more with those can make relatively easy eye contact with.
  • Leaders tend to sit at the head of the table and people who sit at the short end of a rectangular table tend to be selected as leaders.
  • People generally don’t sit at the short end of a rectangular table opposite the leader (so if space in a meeting room is tight, you can consider shorting the space needed for the chair placed there).
  • Leaders tend to sit so that they have a view of the door through which people will enter or leave the meeting room.  Therefore if the wall opposite the door is a window wall, there can be problems.  If a leader is sitting with his/her back to a window, it’s hard for other people present to see his/her facial expression, etc.
  • “To emphasize leadership, a manager might choose a long table with a chair at the head (and none at the other end).  A circular table, on the other hand, would de-emphasize leadership.”  Deemphasizing leadership makes it more likely that the people present will interact more—which can be good or bad, depending on the situation.

Deciding to place a table in a meeting room may seem like a given, but the presence of a table has clear implications for how people act.  Having some sort of table between people at a meeting—in other words having people sit around a table—increases the psychological distance (in other words reduces the emotional connection) between meeting participants (Sundstrom and Sundstrom, 1986).  This can also be good or bad, depending on the situation.

Sommer studied how people interact around conference tables and learned that they prefer to talk, and are more likely to do so and form relationships with others, when they are speaking across the corner of a table—this means when their chairs are at 90 degree angles from each other (1969). 

People are more likely to cooperate with someone they’re meeting with when they’re sitting across from them as opposed to beside them, so in situations in which cooperation is desired, for example, during negotiations, tables should be selected so that the people who should cooperate, for example, union leaders, can sit across from each other (Gifford, 2007).

In North America, to facilitate positive interactions around meeting attendees, tables should be sized so that the heads of the people sitting across from each other at them are 5 and a half feet apart or less (Sommer, 1969). 

People prefer to sit in the same seat at each meeting they attend, for example, there’s someone who always wants to sit beside the door (Costa, 2012).  Particularly in spaces where people will meet briefly, it’s advantageous to provide seats that can be readily reconfigured by attendees into familiar arrangements (e.g., the same pattern around a central table).

Posture during meetings—well, actually anytime—has a big effect on our thoughts and behaviors, and different sorts of seats make particular positions more likely.  Some chairs allow more relaxed stretched out type sitting, for example.  For more information on the repercussions of various postures, read this Research Design Connections article

Standing meetings have been carefully studied.  Some managers—and others—became quite interested in having attendees stand at as many meetings as possible after it was found that standing meetings are generally quicker than sitting meetings at which the same material is covered (Bluedom, Turban, and Lore, 1999).

Knight and Baer (in press) investigated the effect of people standing during meetings on group performance.  Their work indicates that standing by all attendees during meetings can improve a group’s work on knowledge work-type tasks.  This work by Knight and Baer builds on a recent study by Oppezzo and Schwartz (2014) linking walking and better creative thinking.  It’s important to recognize that the meetings Knight and Baer studied were 30 minutes long and only involved able bodied individuals who could stand for 30 minutes.  The researchers also do not provide information about many aspects of the spaces where the standing meetings took place that may have influenced the performance of people in standing, versus seated, meetings.  This research is, however, intriguing enough to justify a few standing meeting options in workplaces, etc.

Designing spaces so that everyone can see “project relevant” information is important. For example, in healthcare conference rooms, when both patients and doctors can see computer screens on which care-related material is displayed, for example, because they are all sitting on the same side of a table and facing a single screen, doctors share more information with patients and patients feel they are better informed (Almquist, Kelly, Bromberg, Bryant, Christianson, and Montori.  2009).

Meeting Room Size, Material, and Location Fundamentals

Van Miel, Martens, and van Ree, (2010), who have excellent reputations as practitioners and researchers, have determined how large meeting spaces of various types should be for optimal interaction among the people present.  They suggest:

  • For an open meeting area, 1.5 square meters or 16 square feet of space per person be provided
  • In enclosed meeting spaces, 2 square meters or 22 square feet per person are best
  • Any meeting space where special equipment or furniture is required must provide 3 square meters or 32 square feet per person
  • When a space for stand up meetings is planned, 1 square meter or 11 square feet per person must be “budgeted” to the space

 Van Miel and his team (2010) also report that:

  • Transparent walls are handy for letting people outside a meeting room know who’s at a meeting, but they also expose all of the meeting attendees to the distractions outside that meeting room.
  • People in a meeting room with glass walls on several sides can feel very exposed to passersby; this is called the “fishbowl effect.”
  • When planning a meeting room, it’s important to make sure that the space is not too small or too unusual a shape for laptop projection equipment to be used easily.  Similarly, meeting rooms where it’s likely that material will be projected must have at least one wall onto which information can be projected (e.g., free of wall paper and furniture, etc.)
  • When meeting rooms will be used by lots of people, or at least more than 5, it’s best if they’re located near the point on the floor where visitors will arrive (for example, by the elevator or staircase), to minimize the number of people who will be walking by workspaces while traveling to meetings.  It’s also convenient if these meeting spaces are near places where people can hang out and talk before or after a session without disturbing others.  If refreshments are likely to be served at larger meetings, for example, because they will be attended by clients, it makes sense to locate the larger meeting rooms near break areas—then refreshments are easy to deliver and pre/post conversations won’t be too disruptive to nearby workers (at least if the break spaces are appropriately located).  Having small meeting rooms near pantry areas can also pan out, then people who meet up during their breaks can duck into a meeting room to talk without disrupting people in the break room or co-workers, in general, trying to work nearby.
  • When furniture can be moved, more types of seating arrangements are possible in a single space which adds to its functionality.
  • If a meeting space is in an area where most of the nearby workspaces are used by a single group or team, that group or team is likely to become possessive about that meeting space, thinking of it as “ours.” This can lead to hard feelings when people from other teams or groups try to use it—meaning that work spaces that are theoretically available to anyone in the company in the end may very well not be.
  • Meeting spaces without walls can only be used for nonconfidential discussions.
  • If an organization wants to encourage people to spontaneously join meetings in progress, meeting spaces without walls are a good idea.
  • Standing meeting places should be located near circulation or break areas to encourage use and minimize distractions to others.

Hua and her colleagues comprehensively analyzed workplaces, identifying physical factors perceived by workers to support collaborative work or linked by workers to distractions (Hua, Loftness, Kraut, and Powell, 2010).  The researchers determined that floor plates in which meeting rooms are distributed around the core of the structure or at the core and in the corners of the floor plan “often have a shorter average distance from workstations to meeting space” and are perceived by workers to be most supportive of collaborative work and least distracting to workers not involved in a meeting.   Hua and her team recommend that meeting rooms be located near workstation zones since  “Nearby meeting rooms enable occupants to use those spaces to carryout their collaborative work and casual interactions as needed.  Importantly, these meeting spaces need to have good acoustic enclosure to avoid distracting occupants in nearby workstations. . . . The value of shared service and amenity areas in workplace collaboration lies largely in their ability to accommodate impromptu encounters among co-workers, which can initiate interactions for socialization, information exchange, work coordination, and creative development.” 

Meeting rooms can be located and reserved for use in ways that encourage functional zone path overlap.  One hundred more feet of functional zone path overlap makes it significantly more likely that individuals will collaborate (Kabo, Hwang, Levenstein, and Owen-Smith, in press). Functional zones are the areas within which people work and the spaces they travel to during the average day, such as cafeterias, stairwell/elevators, bathrooms, and hallways.  “Path overlap” is the likely overlap in travel between two individual’s functional zones.  If two people walk along the same stretch of hallway on their way to a coffee machine, the length of that shared walkway is path overlap for these two people. Kabo and his team provide an interesting example of how the location of restrooms for men and women can influence collaboration and the conclusions they draw regarding locating bathrooms are also relevant for the siting of other support spaces.  They determined that when men’s and women’s bathrooms are located at some distance from each other, for example, far apart on a long hallway, functional zone path overlaps will increase for same-gender pairs and decrease for mixed-gender pairs, which has implications for collaboration among same-gender individuals (increasing) and mixed-gender pairs (decreasing). 

Biophilicly Designed Meeting Rooms

Meeting rooms should be biophilicly designed—people are relaxed and comfortable in spaces designed biophilicly.  For more information on biophilic design principles, read this article.  

People are more comfortable and relaxed in spaces with prospect and refuge; these places give them the feeling of surveying the nearby area from a protected spot (Heerwagen and Gregory, 2008).  Meeting rooms can be designed to do just that.  Classic examples of spaces with prospect and refuge are inglenooks and window seats, but meeting rooms with three solid walls and sightlines through a glass wall into a workspace also provide prospect and refuge. 

Mahbub Rashid and his associates (2006) found that even in organizations that encourage their employees to work in public spaces, employees seem to avoid “interacting with others in spaces and being seen with others from spaces with more visibility and accessibility.” These spaces lack prospect and refuge.  This aversion to working in open spaces was found even though in several of the sites analyzed an effort had been made to create collaborative work environments; in these locations, offices had been made smaller, and there were wide corridors, as well as large common and teamwork areas, to encourage collaboration outside the individual cubicle.

We also feel comfortable and secure when our backs are protected.  Robson has learned that seats that are placed directly in front of walls (tall or short), columns, bushy plants, or in booths are most popular at restaurants (2008).  Meeting rooms where most of the walls are solid make “protected back seating” more probable.

Plants in meeting rooms are a good idea. For more information on the upside of designing vegetation into rooms, see this article.  

Functional scenting of meeting rooms can make productive, positive meetings in these areas more likely.  Using scents strategically is discussed here

Meetings and National Culture

National culture has a significant influence on how people perceive spaces and objects and prefer to use them, as described here

National culture also affects how people interact during meetings.  Kemp and Williams analyzed business meetings in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) (in press).  What they learned is useful to people developing work environments in the UAE and neighboring countries with similar business behavior.  Kemp and Williams found that “the Gulf Arab region offers an eclectic mix of different cross-cultural interactions, when business meetings are being conducted. . . .  meeting times were treated rather flexibly in this cultural setting, with lateness, interruptions and a lack of time boundaries. Similarly, meeting space was fluid in this environment, with regular disruptions, open doors, and haphazard seating . . . . meeting space and time in the Arab world is valued as open and public. The spacial and temporal rituals contrasted and somewhat violated the rigid, private world of meetings, as valued in the western world.”  The researchers report that “Arabs prefer face-to-face discussions,” which has implications for the number and type of meeting spaces available.  In addition, “The Arab culture is of high context, that is, communication is rather indirect with many interruptions and is dependent on the external environment, and implicit non-verbal cues are gathered from the context and the conversation.” 

Air Quality in Meeting Rooms

Research completed by scientists at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the State University of New York Upstate Medical University indicates that designers should ensure that spaces they develop have adequate ventilation (“Elevated Indoor Carbon Dioxide Impairs Decision-Making Performance,” 2012).  A research-related press release states that “Overturning decades of conventional wisdom, researchers . . . have found that moderately high indoor concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) can significantly impair people’s decision-making performance.”  Specifics on the findings:  participants were assessed “On nine scales of decision-making performance, [they]  showed significant reductions on six of the scales at CO2 levels of 1,000 parts per million (ppm) and large reductions on seven of the scales at 2,500 ppm. The most dramatic declines in performance, in which subjects were rated as ‘dysfunctional,’ were for taking initiative and thinking strategically.”  A chart at the web address noted below indicates performance on all 9 scales at various carbon dioxide levels.  The researchers warn that it is particularly important to assess indoor air quality in green, energy-efficient buildings, which are often built to be “tighter” than conventional structures.  For context: “In the real world, CO2 concentrations in office buildings normally don’t exceed 1,000 ppm, except in meeting rooms, when groups of people gather for extended periods of time.”

Special Purpose Meeting Rooms – Spaces for Mediation/Negotiation

Purvis integrated information from environmental design and conflict mediation practice to determine how design can be used to support the mediation process (2013). 

Information was collected from surveys completed by 476 dispute professionals and interviews with 10 people who answered the survey questions.  Purvis found that “eight general themes emerged
 as characteristics of spaces supportive to consensus building: a lack of distractions; comfort; confidentiality; safety; positive tone; parity; support of space planning logistics; and flexibility.” Several of these factors are particularly important for conflict resolution.  Parity, for example, “in the words of one respondent . . . means ‘the space must be conducive to equal voice.’ . . .  Some examples given by respondents of achieving parity include providing all parties comparable seating types and proximity to the mediator, assuring equal access to window views, and avoiding spaces which feel as if they are ‘owned’ by one party and not another.” 

Mediators also felt flexibility was important in mediation spaces: “Flexibility implies the ability for a dispute professional to assess an environmental need at any given moment and make adjustments to keep the process positively moving forward. . . . Specific examples
 of flexibility include thermostat/temperature control, lighting control, and the ability to rearrange furniture as needed.”

Brown and Curhan were curious about the influence of being energized physically on negotiations (2013).  They got people’s hearts pumping by asking them to do moderate physical exercise, for example, walk at a rate of 3 mph.  This is the usual speed at which people walk when they’re neither rushing nor dawdling.  All participants in the Brown and Curhan study were in good physical health.  The researchers learned that  “When participants had negative prior attitudes toward negotiation, arousal had a detrimental effect on outcomes, whereas when participants had positive prior attitudes toward negotiation, arousal had a beneficial effect on outcomes.”   The most important design-related implications of this research, assuming that negotiators have negative initial opinions about negotiating, is to make sure that people arriving at conference rooms, etc., where negotiations will take place, have an easy journey, for example, that they change floors via escalators and elevators and not stairs. 

 Take Away

Danny Mittleman comprehensively describes and applies the concepts of collaborative engineering to the design of meeting spaces in a paper from 2009. He defines collaborative engineering as “an approach to designing collaborative work practices for high-value recurring tasks and deploying them to practitioners to execute for themselves without ongoing intervention from a professional facilitator.” Mittleman presents extensive lists of questions that people designing meeting rooms should ask at each phase of the programming process. Specific questions suggested include:

  •  “What are the tasks that they [people in the meeting] will be using the space for?” Mittleman outlines several types of meetings, each of which is clearly named: presentation meetings (with information traveling from a presenter to meeting attendees, who then may ask questions); problem solving meetings (multi-party communication, shared information, and adjacencies are important for these sessions); work execution meetings (the objective for these types of sessions is to execute a particular work product, with the resource requirements and type of communication depending on the work product involved); and social meetings.
  • “How long will meetings last? . . . Will food or drink be served? Will they [attendees] take breaks in or adjacent to the space?”
  •  “How much sound will bleed into your meeting space from adjacent spaces, and much sound will bleed out of your meeting space to adjacent spaces?”

Resolving the issues Mittleman raises through the questions he asks leads to the application of the important information presented in this article regarding meeting room interior and architectural design, placement, and other, related, issues.

It’s important to remember that no matter how well meeting spaces are designed, they will not be used if an organization’s culture does not support work in those areas (Oseland, Marmot, Swaffer, and Ceneda,  2011).  Spaces whose design is seen as frivolous or not suitable for “real” work will be utilized for birthday and holiday parties but not strategic sessions, for example.  Designers must understand an organization’s culture to develop places that add value.

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