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The key to great meeting space is that it provides everything participants need to be 100% focused on the topic being discussed, and nothing more. With that in mind, a good meeting planner will:
Make sure everyone can see each other–This is a key factor in group participation, so if you make only one change to your current meeting space set-up, this should be it. If you have a small group, (10 people or less) a round table is best. A large square table or tables set up in a square or U-shape can also work–just make sure there are no more than 3 people on each side of the table. For 10-30 people, you can use this same basic idea, just replace the large center table with a a circle of chairs or desks. With more than 30 people, the circle gets too large to hear what everyone is saying; another solution is required.
Traditionally, large groups use a theatre or classroom-style set-up. The problem is both assume one person is talking (from the front) and everyone else is listening. If you want people to participate, a modified version works better. Instead of lots of short, straight rows of chairs facing the front of the room, use fewer (3-4) long rows of chairs in a crescent shape. Break up the rows with 2-3 aisles so participants can still easily get to all of the chairs. This shape makes it much easier for participants to see and each other while still providing space for a speaker or facilitator at the front of the room.
Make sure everyone is comfortable–This means you need comfortable chairs, adequate personal space, and room to write (if that’s required). If the meeting is longer than 2.5 hours, it’s also best to provide some sort of food and/or beverage.
Some experts suggest the opposite. The theory is if people are uncomfortable they will limit discussion and let everyone get on with the “real” work. I think that is a little silly. If the main goal of your meeting is to be done fast, cancel it. Meetings that are just about delegating responsibility or making reports are happening out of organizational habit. Find other ways to distribute information (e-mail, shared on-line work spaces, conference calls) and save face to face meeting time for work that can only be done by the right people, working together to find solutions no one would think of alone. For meetings like that, everyone deserves a chair.
Reduce distractions–Make the space comfortable enough that participants are not distracted by being too hot or too cold, too cramped, or unable to hear what’s going on, but not so comfortable that they drift off into daydreams (or actual sleep). Music, excessive street noise and televisions are also generally bad.
A final note of caution. If you are working with a hotel meeting planner, don’t expect your vision of the room setup matches hers. Your goal is to make sure your participants have everything they need to be successful, her goal is to get you in to the smallest room possible without breaking the fire code. Make sure you are very, very clear about your space needs and always check out the space at least an hour before the meeting starts. More times than not, you will be rearranging the chairs.
What are your “must haves” for meeting spaces? Tell us, or better yet, link to photos of your favorite (or nightmare) meeting locations in the comments!
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