Meetings: Looking at the Wrong Direction

In my previous post on where should we meet, I have mentioned how I think meeting rooms should be designed. I only managed to change one room (out of 20) in my organization and you probably stuck with the same problem as well.
So today I would like to say what we CAN do while sitting in a traditional meeting room.

One size doesn’t fit all

Somewhere in the past, someone has designed the traditional meeting room, while imagining that meeting rooms would be used by a lecturer standing by the screen displaying a presentation.

If that was reality, then OK. However, reality is different, at least in High-Tech companies and specifically in R&D departments.
Most of the time meetings in meeting rooms, are done while the presenter is sitting down with her laptop, usually at the head of the table (the side that is far away from the screen). The presenter lectures from her sit and presents from her laptop on the big screen.

Did you notice what is wrong here? Imagine that you are one of the participants in the room. Now think where your head and sight are targeted to. Is that the screen direction OR the lecturer direction? Remember, the lecturer and the screen are in different directions.

Do you see what I mean? You either looking at the screen for conveying vitual information OR you are looking at the lecturer to get engaged with the lecture. I heard a lecture recently describing that looking at the speaker face while she speaks leverage your communication to 80% (as opposed to 20% where you don’t see her face, but just hear her voice). Amazing.
So what does it mean? It means that our information gathering during a meeting in traditional meeting rooms is poor.

What can we do about it…

Simply request the presenter to sit near the screen, even if it means the presenter would sit with her back to the screen. After all, the presenter has her laptop for presenting and she can see what everyone else can see.

I know there are many kind of meetings, dependeds on the type of the organization. However, many of the meetings in R&D groups, that require presentation (design, architecture, whatever) are of this kind (lecturer with a laptop, presenting). And BTW, the bigger the room, the poorer the communication engagement (plus you leave the meeting with hearting neck after moving it back and forth endless times between the screen and the presenter).

Think about it.

Where Should We Meet?

This is my first post that discuss items beyond the outlook domain.

There are endless books on How we should conduct our meetings – setting objectives, agenda, summary, etc. I read quite a few of them and I found the information very useful for getting the right guidelines for performing efficient meetings. However, I felt there is still something missing in order to take meetings to the next level. Therefore, I decided to challenge the norms and do some experiments on myself, and on my teams. My teams were kind enough to participate in those experiments (I hope they don’t hold that against me now…).

Traditional Meeting Room

Meeting room with a big table in the middle and many chairs around it. If you are lucky, there is a white board placed on one of the walls. If you are working in a technology company, you might also have an audio or video conferencing device for connecting remote people.

What bothers me in that room

The table. Yes, the table.

If we come to think about it – what the purpose of the table is? We are not serving food or treats during the meeting (at least not in most of them). We don’t encourage laptop usage in the meetings (laptop == multi-tasking == person-not-engaged == why-this-person-came-to-the-meeting-from-the-first-place). Well, maybe except for the organizer or presenter, but that is just one person with a laptop.

So what the table is used for? I think it is used for hiding behind it, for blocking some of our body language, for text messaging behind the table, for putting barriers between us and the other participants. It is a kind of a shield that blocks the meeting energy and people’s engagement. It doesn’t sound like something I want to have in my meetings.

And there is the white board, the main tool for collaboration, which is placed on one of the walls and sadly has limited access for most of the participants. White board is great, I love it, but the limited access to it damages the collaboration volume in the room.

My conclusion

Not a good room design in my opinion. The more I come to think of it, the more I’m confused on why rooms in high-tech companies (that foster for brainstorming and idea sharing) are designed that way.

I would use those rooms for status meetings or large audience meetings (personally, I’m trying to reduce those kind of meetings to a bare minimum).

Stand-up Meeting Room

This meeting room type resides on the other extreme. No tables, no chairs, all participants are standing up. Those kind of meetings are designed for high engagement. Researches show that stand-up meeting enables us to accomplish the same goal in a shorter time (33% more efficient).

I have tried it in various combinations. I am using stand-up meeting room in our Scrum daily meetings that take 5 to 15 minutes. It works very well.

I have tried 30 minutes stand-up meetings – those were a bit too much for the people to take.

My conclusion

A great way to meet for short discussions – up to 20 minutes. It is really an efficient usage of the time and it enables high engagement levels of the participants. The problem is, that most companies don’t have such rooms. I recommend to fight for such a room. If you have many meeting rooms in your company, choose one and get the table and chairs out of it. It worth it.

The Kind of Meeting Room I Like

I like small forum sit-down meeting rooms with a few chairs located around a low table – a table that is used for collaboration. I never saw such a meeting room in any of the companies I have worked for. I have built such a room by removing the heavy tables from my room, finding a low-coffee table (made of glass) and locating it in the middle of my room. As the table is made of glass, I can draw (and erase) on it for collaboration – fantastic!

The fact that the table is low, enables people to see each other in “full size”, head-to-toes, which provides higher engagement levels. The fact that people can see each other head-to-toes really makes a difference (again, researches proved it).

Moreover, the fact the participants sit within the same distance from the table, enables each one of them to collaborate in the same manner – all have the same unlimited access to the collaboration tool (i.e. the table).

I found it very useful for small-forum brainstorming-oriented meetings.

This is my room (so proud of it :)):

Bring it All Together

As most of the meetings I encourage in my group are small-forum idea-sharing and brainstorming meetings (as opposed to status meetings and large forum meetings), I find the stand-up and low-table-room meetings most efficient.

I know the low-table room sounds, at first, like a strange idea (and people walking by my room think I got crazy), but it works for me and my teams. People gave great feedback after using that room – it is fun and efficient (or maybe they are just happy because the meeting is sitting down instead of standing up). Either way, I encourage you to try it out.

I’m still puzzled with my large-scale meetings (5+ participants, 20+ minutes). I still didn’t find a suitable room for that. I would be happy to have a mid-size room, with no table, only chairs, and a white board (even portable white board). I really thing it will boost up our large-scale brainstorming meetings.

One last thing about meetings – we are living in a high technology world with a lot of options to meet virtually over an audio or a video bridge. I’m a big fan of meetings over a video bridge – it is way more efficient then emails (and video bridge is a lot more efficient than an audio bridge). However, if you have the option to meet face to face, do it – it is a lot better option to choose. No technology, so far, enables the level of engagement such in face to face meeting.