October 22, 2010

Meeting Design: What would make the environment more inviting?

The design of a publication or website shapes the way you read it.  A building or park layout influences how we move about the space.  This New York Times essay shows how a school lunch line redesign could influence healthier dining choices being made. The environment in which a meeting or workshop occurs influences how individuals engage with each other and the meeting or learning experience.

While planning decisions related to the environment rightly focus on logistics (chairs, tables, temperature, food, etc.) those logistics must support a deeper purpose.  We should begin by answering: What would make a meeting or workshop environment more inviting … to the participants attending and for the work of the gathering?  In other words, what environment is likely to support the desired outcomes for the session and be conducive to participant interaction?  Answering this question requires two key pieces of information: (1) what the session must accomplish, and (2) the meeting norms and expectations of those attending.

A session designed to produce a significant number of creative ideas is very different than one meant to reach a decision on a critical and controversial decision.  A workshop intended to build community and collaborative skills is not the same as one introducing content required for a certification exam.  The location and room set are the obvious environmental considerations, but they are really just the beginning.

Think about: posters or other visuals on the walls; music during arrivals, breaks and departures; materials on the tables that can engage people physically or introduce a sense of purpose or play; the printed support materials that the meeting will use; flipcharts and slides; the external environment participants will need to navigate prior to arriving at the meeting; the food and beverage and how they support the energy and attention the meeting's work requires and participants' tastes and preferences related to diet and wellness.  Years ago when I served on a volunteer board, the meeting planner always had each person's favorite beverage available throughout the day.  If you're a Tab or Fresca fanatic that is an unexpected delight.

We are all somewhat creatures of habit and bring our expectations into a meeting environment based on our past experiences and organizational routines.  If you've used to a room with a conference table and leather chairs, a hollow square or a circle of chairs will definitely be different.   At a Strategic Leadership Forum years ago, ASAE created a general session room with (1) no front and (2) a mix of seating options including oversized sofas and chairs, small cocktail rounds, typical meeting chairs, and more.  Some people walked into the seemingly random room layout and were delighted.  Others not so much.  One group of individuals made a row of chairs facing what they presumed would be the front, recreating what was familiar and comfortable for them.  You don't have to cater specifically to participants' expectations, but if you are going to be introducing a different environment, you need to prepare for the fact they may not find it inviting or may require some support to find their way.

Remember, too, that core demographics including gender, age, race or ethnicity also affect participants' perceptions. An inviting environment is one in which individuals can see themselves being comfortable.  If they are geeked out on technology, they'll feel comfortable in meetings that support them staying connected and that model great use of the latest technologies.  Examples and metaphors used in conversation must be inclusive so that everyone attending understands the meaning and reference.  Business casual can mean very different things to individuals.  Time of day and the way time is managed also reflect different cultural norms.

The environment sends immediate messages about the purpose of the session and how participants are meant to engage with the space and each other.  Organization development specialist Kurt Lewin once said that behavior is a function of people interacting with their environment.  If you want your meeting environment to be inviting and to get an RSVP from your participants, design it with (1) great intention for the purpose and the participants and (2) with great attention to the details that will support both.

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