Meeting rooms had a specific function in times past when business management methods were slower and more formal.

PLACEmaking's Alison White with Bristol City Council's Richard Billingham

What is a meeting?

Generally there were a small number of meeting rooms, and these tended to be used exclusively at senior management level. Managers had their own offices (the more senior you were then the larger your office was likely to be), and this was justified because meetings were held in them. More junior grades didn’t have meetings or offices – their task was to generate information for their seniors to discuss exclusively themselves. The board room was of course the most special of all, and only used by senior management or for very formal meetings.

Behind closed doors

Back then, collecting information was generally a manual process: administrative teams processed specific performance information in a prescribed paper template that was collated up and passed to senior managers through multiple layers of middle management. The entire process was mechanistic, and generally the only people who had full exposure to all of the business performance information were those in senior management (although they might not have shared everything they held – after all, information was power and political manoeuvres at senior management level were not unknown even then).

Senior management meetings inevitably happened in private meeting rooms and behind closed doors where something apparently magical happened, because at the end of the meeting instructions were passed down through the chain of command to the shop floor to do something different, faster or better, and then of course the reporting process would start all over again.

The meeting room was the hub, the command and control centre and one that only a very select few were ever invited in to. As with anything that appears ‘exclusive’, those meeting rooms had a certain kind of aura  – sometimes positive but often negative. They were regarded with respect, almost a holy place where you’d need to wipe your shoes before entering and walking across the plush carpet. People feared the call to attend a meeting held in these kinds of rooms, and there were plenty of somewhat dark jokes about such a call invariably resulting in getting the sack. These cultural imprints were shared between work colleagues, and those new to the workplace soon picked up on the exclusivity of the meeting room – it was for the special few and not for everyone else.

The changing office

With the introduction of computer systems, more real-time information about what was happening on the shop floor was available and managers were required to have a better handle on productivity and costs. Organisations started to import new ideas and business methods from the US and, keen to get more ‘order’ in their business practices, they began to change the office layout. Designers developed ‘space standards’ – more military-style allocation of space by function and not just by grade. Managers’ offices started to disappear as more democracy of information was available via the personal computer. The dominant single management pyramid of the past started to change. Flatter management structures emerged with smaller pyramids and clusters of people collating information on specific areas of business. The role of senior management changed: it needed to ensure it kept pace with information from the mini-pyramids, making sure they didn’t become siloed in their perspective and therefore blind to the bigger picture.

Now a greater number of people had access to information, then the number of management grades increased and with that came a greater demand for meeting rooms – after all, the learned cultural expectation is that managers spend large amounts of their time in meetings and in meeting rooms. Yet if you ask people who host meetings what the purpose is they often say it’s:

  1. to find out what’s happening,
  2. to ensure progress is being made, and
  3. to hold to account someone doing something they’re not happy about.

If you ask regular attendees to such meetings what the purpose of a meeting is they admit most are a complete waste of time, with no clear purpose and poor outcomes that use up time they could be utilising far more productively. Yet they continue to go to them – why? Because the culture of meetings is entrenched in most organisations and few are prepared to challenge the solutions more relevant to the past than the present.

 

PLACEmaking's Alison White with Bristol City Council's Richard Billingham

Sticking to what we know…

We rarely ask our newest recruits how they think the workplace should be designed and equipped, more often it’s senior managers that dictate the brief for any change of solution. Meetings and meeting rooms are a comfort to us – we might not like them or often even use them, but not having them or swapping them for something unfamiliar worries us so we keep on with them until someone shows us another way. But they have to be credible. It takes a bold start-up and one that become commercially successful such as Google or Facebook to challenge the status quo and then others will ask the question: why are we still doing this? Why, at a time when we each carry around with us the technology of an astronaut and because we can’t or won’t challenge such cultural constraints, are we still expected to set sail in a pirate ship?

Some time ago, several senior executives of a major UK media company told me that their diaries were always filled to the brim with meetings from first thing in the morning to last thing in the evening, for at least two weeks ahead. Often they said that by the time the meeting came around, the whole purpose of why the meeting was requested in the first place had gone away. They knew that because their diaries were known to be so packed, people didn’t cancel meetings but turned up anyway as an insurance just in case another problem emerged in the meantime. As a result the executives all chose to insist meetings were planned hourly but finished at least 15 minutes early so that they could grab some time for a bathroom visit or a bit of a break. They all referred to being ecstatic if a meeting was cancelled last minute or concluded quickly so they could in their words “get some proper work done!”

When we removed their offices, gave them mobile technology and they joined their colleagues in a smart working environment, they reported a complete change in their day to day. Making themselves a coffee in the shared kitchen meant that they bumped in to people, got chatting and problems were discussed and resolved in seconds. As a result their diaries were no longer clogged and they felt they had more of a connection to what was happening and could use their skills, experience and knowledge to help others and mentor them to resolve problems for themselves. Imagine!

Meaningful meetings

Now we are even better equipped with mobile technology and telephony, we have remote and secure access to digitally created and stored information and our social expectations of what ‘work’ means has evolved. We therefore have greater choice on when and where to work, meaning that when we do get together we want the investment of time and effort to be meaningful – and so the places we gather need to be attractive to us, otherwise we can simply go somewhere else.

We need to be convinced that time spent with others will be rewarding: that there is an agreed reason to be together, a clear objective, and we want to think for ourselves how best we can contribute – in person or via simply by Skype. When we do invest in time meeting others we want facilities to be available that are richer in quality and variety. We want spaces that inspire us to innovate, problem-solve, and envisage better ways to achieve shared objectives, and that are of value. We want spaces that we can pull and push around and arrange in whatever way we think will best meet our needs and tasks. We have limited time to waste so we want to ensure the space is available when we want it: we expect intuitively-functioning technology, with the materials and equipment needed to be on hand and complete. In other words we want a fully serviced solution.

This is a complete workplace-related change and challenges how we’ve previously used, provided and serviced the workplace. It requires a complete rethink across all aspect of workplace solution:

  • People
    We are all influenced by our experiences and the social, economic and political context of when we were born and first entered the workplace. No size ever did fit all but now we need to ensure that everyone has a personalised change experience so that we are all prepared to expect and accept ongoing workplace-related change and take responsibility to understand how it benefits us as individuals as well as the sponsoring organisation.
  • Place
    As we have more choice on when and where to work, the Place becomes ever more important. The assumption that everyone will be working from home is an error – we like human contact on the whole and so working in isolation is not the automatic solution. Instead we want to exploit mobility and select places to work that are inspirational. We want to improve our health and wellbeing and reduce the time sitting at desks aimlessly looking for inspiration into a computer monitor.
  • Platforms
    We need to exploit technology and not be exploited by it or those that provide and service it “on our behalf”. We need solutions that meet our business needs and reject poor quality, poorly presented and poorly serviced technical solutions, downgraded to match entry level service support budgets and light years from the functional quality of our own purchased tablets and phones that we carry around in our bags or have at home.
  • Providers
    We need to repurpose support services. Facilities Management needs to lift its focus above savings-driven cleaning and maintenance and grasp the opportunity to be workplace facilitators for a smaller quantity but better quality solution: ensuring the serviced office is designed and maintained to hotel standards and is elegant in presentation and function, and that hosting the workplace and enabling the smooth use of space, facilities and assets sits at the heart of the operation.

Surely it’s time that we update and upgrade our expectation about the workplace, how it operates and how we function in it. We can start by looking carefully at our own diaries – if you have meetings in your diary two weeks ahead of today and you have no real idea why you’re going to them then it’s time to think afresh. If more than 30% of your office space has desks in it or meeting rooms are the only alternative spaces available to get away from the desk, then it’s time to review how your workplace is holding you back from achieving your future vision and business expectations.

Contact PLACEmaking today to find out how we can help you implement Smart Working in your organisation – and consign meaningless meetings to the history books.