FACILITY DESIGN FOR ALL-HANDS MEETINGS

Have you ever been to a company retreat or team-building weekend? How about a catered lunch in your building’s courtyard? Bagels and coffee in the conference room on a Tuesday morning? If your entire firm was in attendance for any of these, you were likely in an “all-hands” meeting. We’re all familiar with the term “all hands on deck,” but it was the jargon-crazy business types who whittled it down for sales effect.

Like every other company-wide initiative, the all-hands meeting has been rigorously poked and prodded by thought leaders bent on constructing strategies and goals most likely to minimize loss and maximize productivity, and profit. And it seems like those thought leaders are smitten.

An Entrepreneur.com article raved about it. “Depending on the size of your company, an all-hands meeting can cost tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars. It is worth every penny.”

That may be a bit overzealous, but clearly, the all-hands meeting is a worthwhile investment to a great many companies, large and small. Workplace consultants and time-management experts are bullish on what makes these meetings tick, right down to the minutes and seconds during which the gathering should yield the best results. What’s often missing, curiously, are substantial details about the meeting spaces. It could be that all-hands “theory” has not yet caught up with the most modern and valued advances in office products and design. More likely, it’s the very notion that meetings themselves seem to inflame a very significant block of business leaders who just can’t stand the thought of ever again attending one.

THE TRUTH ABOUT MEETINGS

Multi-disciplinary management experts don’t seem to mince words when it comes to the gut-level impact of workplace meetings. They’re simply the scourge of American business. They’re the chief time-drain of any given workday, and even when well-planned and well-intentioned, they can quickly descend into the incessant chatter of triviality and abject dullness. Or worse.

“Meetings are where minutes are taken, and hours are lost,” says noted paperless office guru and tech blogger Jamie Todd Rubin. A 2014 piece in the U.S. edition of theguardian.com noted that meetings are “a soul-sucking waste of time,” and should be conducted standing up.

If that weren’t bad enough, some 63 percent of office meetings have no agenda, while 73 percent of all attendees admit to doing other things while in a meeting, according to Attentiv, a sort of think-tank for team-oriented productivity. There’s very little stated evidence that all-hands meetings have somehow risen above the subject of this tirade. In fact, all-hands meetings are inherently more difficult to organize and execute than “regular” meetings, thereby exposing them to higher-caliber time wasting. But working the problem from a facilities standpoint has offered some relief, at least to those who actually attend the meetings.

This does not apply to those large, multi-national corporations that rent hospitality, entertainment, or outdoor space for annual off-premises, all-hands meetings. That’s a different animal altogether. But what of on-premises spaces? Can companies afford real estate dedicated to all-hands meeting space? The answer is, sort of.

THERE’S NO CRIME IN MULTI-PURPOSE SPACE

Downtown Denver’s Environmental Protection Agency, Region 8 Headquarters looked at the all-hands space as an integrated necessity rather than a facilities perk. The EPA wanted a single space to accommodate all 850-plus employees specifically for all-hands meetings.   They achieved this by fixing upscale wood bleacher seating into the building’s sparkling atrium space, which has turned out to be one of the more popular features of the facility. So the space was designed for all-hands meetings, but it serves multiple purposes for both scheduled and ad hoc meetings.

Open plan offices, alternately loved and hated by the very people who inhabit them, are a natural fit for all-hands meetings. The terms “transparency” and “inclusion,” so prevalent in all-hands meeting language seem to merge seamlessly with the no-barriers design of the open office. That’s not a mistake.

Although a great many emerging companies still push for a multi-generational workplace, it is clearly millennials who hold the cards, and the preeminent office design will remain open and collaborative to address that group’s specific requirements. Consequently, the all-hands meeting space for this type of environment is always available by virtue of what’s already in it. This might include a mix of hard and soft seating, lounge-style tables of varying heights, stools, benches, even chunky, soft-sided “bleachers” in vivid colors and prints. Mobility and flexibility are the keys to success when this type of design is employed. Most elements don’t need to be moved out of the space, but rather around the space to better facilitate sitting, standing, and leaning.

Smaller companies with less space and a less open plan can still achieve a more than adequate all-hands area. Clustered work stations with lower-height panels and open-sided desktops can increase sight lines and provide a wide variety of casual seating. Although this approach may seem like a retroactive response to a short-term issue, it’s frequently planned for in the original design.

Similarly, many dual and multi-floor tenants may have included in the build-out a “monumental” stair or other dominant design feature which serves double-duty as the company’s all-hands area. It’s been baked into the cake. Even some of the more traditional professional services firms worldwide have adopted some open plan fundamentals which specifically address the spatial requirements for all-hands meetings.

But the devil is always in the details. Design issues for all-hands meetings are usually sacrificed for the cultural and/or profit value of any given gathering, as they should be. Fair enough. Business goals will almost always take precedence over the facilities in which they’re discussed. But it’s never wise to ignore the impact of the design, especially when every minute counts.

Kim Hoff is a Senior Project Manager at KIEDING. She can be reached at khoff@kieding.com This work originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of Building Dialogue magazine.