5 ways to set up a collaborative space for meetings

How to set up a great meeting space

Meeting space

For most of us, meetings are an unavoidable part of work but incredibly valuable when managed well. Meeting face-to-face remains popular, even though low-cost, digital alternatives are available. There’s something about getting together in person – about being together in time and space – that makes a face-to-face meeting an ideal way to get work done, make decisions and avoid misunderstandings.

The way you set up your meeting space can influence the conversation and the meeting’s outcomes. Some spaces encourage creative collaboration and decisions; others seem to generate frustration and aggression.

It doesn’t matter whether your meeting space is your dining room, your home office, a formal workplace, a café, or a specially designed meeting room – there are always things you can do to help ensure the space makes a positive contribution to your conversation. If you make conscious decisions about the set-up of the space, you’ll be able to spend the meeting focused on the work at hand rather than worrying about something in the environment.

These 5 tips will help you to set up a space that encourages conversation and collaboration.

1. Match the space to your purpose

Decide whether your space is suitable for the meeting ahead. Does the venue offer the right balance of professionalism, privacy, neutrality and formality? Does it provide the support services you need? Is it the right size for your group? Does it provide what you need in terms of natural light, air conditioning, accessibility and size? It doesn’t make sense to discuss a highly personal topic in a public space, it doesn’t make sense to conduct sensitive negotiations in a space that appears partisan, and it doesn’t make sense to hold an informal chat in a corporate boardroom.

2. Plan the seating arrangements

Think about where and how the participants will sit. Meetings are most likely to be collaborative if participants sit in comfortable task chairs, which are all the same height and style. It helps if participants can see each other’s faces without turning on an uncomfortable angle.

Most meetings work best if you sit around a table, rather than in a circle of chairs or sofas. If possible, arrange the group so that no individual has a dominant position at the head of the table. If you’re the meeting’s chairperson and you hope to encourage collaboration, it’s best to sit on the side of the table (not at the head and not directly in the centre).

When you arrange the chairs, check that no participant will be looking directly at a sunny window or directly at a projector. If you’re using a data projector, try to arrange the room so that everyone can see the screen easily. At the same time, try not to make the screen the main focus of everyone’s attention. Remember that participants are coming to the meeting to talk with each other, not simply to look at a screen.

If you’re meeting with just one other person, try to sit at right angles to each other rather than directly facing across a table – sitting directly opposite the other person can introduce a sense of confrontation. If you’re meeting in your office, don’t sit behind your desk with participants opposite you, particularly if your desk is covered with papers.

3. Remove unnecessary clutter

Make sure that your meeting space is clutter free and calm. Remove papers that are not directly relevant to this meeting. Remove unnecessary equipment and paperwork. A clutter-free space will help your participants to relax and focus on the task at hand.

4. Prepare the space before you start

Prepare the space for the meeting, and make sure you’re ready before the participants arrive. Depending on the meeting, you may need to set up the room, check the equipment is working, organise food and drinks, find stationery supplies, prepare handouts, print name tags, organise parking, and organise security access. It’s frustrating for participants to arrive on time to discover that you’re still wrestling with equipment or collating the handouts. If you show courtesy by ensuring the space is fully prepared, your participants are more likely to participate fully in your meeting.

5. Pay attention to participants’ comfort

As the meeting progresses, be mindful of your participants’ comfort and look for cues that something needs to be changed. Pay particular attention to airflow and access to water. Take regular breaks so that participants can stretch their legs and re-focus their attention.

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Dr Judy Gregory

Dr Judy Gregory is a writer, researcher, meeting facilitator and Principal at the consultancy Information Design Centre. In March 2016, she opened Northside Meetings, a venue for meetings and training in Brisbane’s Red Hill. Find out more at northsidemeetings.com.au.