Dec 22, 2019

Make sure your meeting rooms are Springsteen sweet, not Orwell awful

written by Lisa Eason

Many of our working days are spent in meeting rooms. From first interview to farewell party, office lives are punctuated by meetings, and the appearance of the spaces we use sums up the character of an organisation: flashy or sombre, cutting edge or traditional, minimalist or chaotic.

The ergonomics of such rooms matter. The best have natural light and the right temperature: too hot and one feels sleepy; too cold and everyone is irritable and distracted. I spent years in an un-air-conditioned office on the mezzanine floor of a metal shed. Our meeting room was so hot in summer that the uniform was shorts and T-shirt.

Meeting room chairs should be comfortable — but not too comfortable — and the table must be the right height. Very luxurious meeting rooms can feel decadent; generally only magic circle lawyers and investment bankers enjoy such facilities. As a client, the obvious reaction when ushered into such plush surroundings is: “No wonder their fees are so high.” If I were setting up an advisory firm, I would have modest meeting rooms to send the opposite signal to prospective customers.

In large corporate offices, staff have to book the meeting rooms — and frequently there’s a mix-up, so delicate negotiations have to be undertaken with the receptionist. In boom times, all the meeting rooms are full, with lots of business being done. With open-plan offices, one often enters a meeting room to find someone using it for an illicit personal phone call — probably to a headhunter. In modern buildings, the rooms are reserved electronically, and each room has a display outside telling you who’s meant to be in there.

Meeting rooms in ordinary companies are often given groovy names, reflecting the tastes of the company’s founder, chief executive or partners. So rooms are called Springsteen or Aspen or Ferrari, or perhaps named after cities where the company has offices. Others christen their rooms after brands they own, or cocktails they like, or even their favourite planets. I guess anything is better than just numbering the rooms. That sounds too like Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four and Room 101 — the one containing our worst fears.

Creative companies such as advertising agencies are required to have achingly cool meeting rooms. These are meant to stimulate their employees, but also to project their culture to clients. They should be inspirational and suggest collaboration. Trendy serviced offices such as WeWork’s tend to have giant slogans on the walls. That’s fine, but the basics matter more: a friend who works in one says the most notable aspect of the complex is that by 10am the communal toilets are unusable. Civilised lavatories are really important.

I frequently propose meeting in external premises such as a hotel or cafe — neutral territory, and an excuse to escape and breathe some fresh air. A change of scene can be invigorating, and usually the coffee is better where they sell it for a living. Of course, a public place is less confidential than a private office, but it’s also less formal, which can be an advantage if you are getting to know someone. Lots of companies now let meeting spaces by the hour. I tend to find these clinical and expensive. Someone may invite you to meet at their club — mostly in St James’s or Piccadilly. They are called “Palaces of Power” in a new book of that name by Stephen Hoare. I’m not sure that’s still an accurate label. Anyway, I prefer to avoid such crusty establishments, since many require men to wear a tie, which I hate.

My offices’ meeting rooms are hardly posh but have shelves full of business books. I would argue that books are the most intelligent decoration for almost any room. Bankers’ parlours typically feature 19th-century prints of hunting scenes and perhaps plastic tombstones recording the deals they’ve done. A few rich hedge funds boast splendid art collections hanging on the walls.

For serious meetings involving participants in remote locations, decent video-conferencing equipment is vital. Sophisticated kit to make proper coffee is now common in plusher meeting rooms, although people are typically too shy or intimidated to use the machine.

In an era when most office workers spend their time glued to screens in soulless, open-plan spaces, meeting rooms are perhaps more important than ever as places to socialise and enjoy real human contact and conversation — even if it is about business.