Creating the Right Environment for a Business Meeting

Planning a business meeting involves more than just chairs and microphones. You'll want to create the right ambiance for your meeting, from the seating to the heating. Most of these items are ones that attendees don't notice unless something goes wrong. You know you've done your job well if you hear no mention of any of them.

Transportation

If your meeting is held outside your company's walls, consider various transportation options, including letting participants use their own vehicles, relying on local transit, and hiring a shuttle bus. Whichever option you choose, let the participants know the exact details. Send them a map with precise written directions and information about parking availability and costs. You might even arrange to have parking fees waived.

If you plan to meet at an urban location, notify the participants about any potential traffic difficulties, such as construction or rush-hour bottleneck areas. If they need to use local buses or trains, give them the exact information about where to get off and how to find the meeting location from the bus stop or train station. Hiring a shuttle bus overcomes all these inconveniences, but, of course, it's your most expensive option.

Your main objective is to have people arrive in the right frame of mind. If they run into surprises along the way because of poor planning, their attitudes may need some serious adjustment.

Seating

Most of us are creatures of habit and, given the choice, generally like to sit in the same place at every meeting. Consequently, people get very irritated if someone decides to sit in their seat. They also find that sitting next to a friend, friendly colleague, or someone of influence is comforting, whereas they often sit as far away as possible from someone they consider unpleasant.

Seating arrangements can psychologically influence your overall meeting effectiveness. Someone who wants to exert influence needs direct eye contact with the person she wants to influence, so sitting opposite that person is considered the most strategically powerful position. People who want someone to take notice of them sit to the right of or opposite that person. Another power position for achieving notice is the seat to the right of the leader; as people look at this person, they also look at you, thus creating a subliminal link between the two of you.

For problem-solving, you want to encourage a high level of interaction and participation, so a round-table setup works best. In this arrangement, all seats are considered neutral, thus avoiding any head of the table. This setup promotes a participatory, open-discussion environment.

A U-shaped table arrangement works best for training. It allows presenters to see everyone clearly and have participants easily accessible. Presenters can choose to stay in or out of the U, depending on how comfortable and close they want to be with the participants.

For decision-making, select a rectangular table arrangement with the leader at the head of the table. Definitely seat participants strategically and avoid seating conflicting personalities next to or even across from one another. Sprinkle them throughout the group. For the best discussions, seat people with opposing viewpoints opposite each other. Also consider a hierarchical seating arrangement, which positions attendees in order of descending authority, starting with the meeting chairperson who's seated at the head of the table.

Heating and cooling

Trying to control the heating, ventilating, and air conditioning system is one of every meeting and event planner's biggest nightmares. In many modern facilities, the heating and air conditioning system is often difficult to regulate on a room-by-room basis. So finding a temperature that everyone likes is almost impossible. The result is that you end up with either Saharan or Arctic conditions.

If the room temperature is warm when no one is in it, then it's only going to get warmer with extra bodies. It's best to opt for a cooler environment at the beginning of the meeting. In addition, people are less likely to fall asleep when they're feeling slightly cool. Have plenty of warm drinks available to increase the comfort level.

Room noise and other distractions

Eliminating all room noises and distractions is probably impossible. Still, by getting rid of as many as possible, you can help create the best meeting environment.

Check your meeting room for outside traffic noises, extraneous ventilation sounds, or distractions from the audiovisual equipment or sound system. Doing so is particularly important at an off-site facility that's a new venue for you. Also make sure that the room is away from kitchen noise or other presentations that are being conducted at the same time as your meeting.

Fire alarms don't usually give you the honor of a dress rehearsal. Whether or not the alarm is for real, you have to take it seriously. Before your meeting, make everyone aware of the available exits in case of an emergency.

When choosing your venue, be cognizant of the room decor. Hotel meeting rooms often have themes and are decorated accordingly. Mirrors and large murals or pictures create a distraction not only for presenters but also for the participants. Wherever possible, face chairs away from the diversion.

Want to prevent the sound of those slamming doors every time someone goes to the restroom during a meeting? Apply duct tape over the catch to deaden the sound.

Lighting

If the light is too bright, it strains people's eyes. If the room is too dark, the participants' eyes slowly shut. Whenever possible, use natural light. However, be on the lookout for outside distractions, and face chairs with their backs to the windows.

You need artificial lighting when using audiovisual equipment. Make sure that the light doesn't wash out the screen. If you can, either position the screen away from direct lighting or eliminate lights that are directly above the screen. When meeting off-site, ask the meeting facility to remove or unscrew troublesome bulbs. Doing this is easy if the lights are halogen spotlights, but fluorescent lighting is generally harder to adjust.

Essential details

The small stuff often can have the most impact on a meeting. Here are a few things that may give your meeting that little something special:

  • Providing name cards: For meetings where participants don't all know each other, provide name cards.
  • Taking minutes: Find out whether someone is responsible for taking minutes or whether this may be something you can do. Use a tape recorder to help ensure that the minutes are accurate.
  • Adding spice: Games, brainstorming exercises, and activities that foster interactive participation help make things more exciting.
  • Uncluttering the space: Working meetings can easily become cluttered with leftover food or soft drink cans. Periodically arrange a cleanup session. Removing the clutter often helps to unclutter people's minds and stimulate some extra creativity.
  • Evaluating the success: As part of your preparation, compile a short meeting evaluation form so that you avoid making the same mistakes over and over again. Try to improve each subsequent meeting based on participants' feedback. Suggested questions to ask include the following:

• Did the meeting relate to our goals?

• Did we follow the agenda?

• Did we stay on schedule?

• What should be done differently the next time to ensure a quality meeting?

• What conflicts or disagreements were or weren't resolved?

• What was the quality of decisions made?

• How well did we utilize participants' expertise?

• What happened that was unexpected?

    Also consider critiquing the meeting from your standpoint. Examine what you would do differently the next time around.
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