The Room

By Carol E. Weisman
From Secrets of Successful Retreats, F.E. Robbins & Sons, 2003, pp.17-18

The room itself needs to be large enough for comfort and have room to “move.” Oddly shaped rooms may look good in the pictures, but seldom work as well as a traditional square or rectangle.

When there are less than eight people, almost any board type room with an oval or rectangular table will work. Groups of over twenty require many special arrangements (and are beyond the scope of this chapter). The following guidelines will work best for groups between eight and twenty.

Our experience suggests that thirty linear inches is a reasonable amount of space per person at a table. Therefore, eight people (four on a side) need a table at least ten feet long. This may seem large, but if you are going to be sitting there for eight to ten hours, the space is necessary. Twenty-four inches is the minimum to be able to do anything. It is not as comfortable, provides little “personal space” and certainly will not be conducive to a tough meeting agenda.

Space is necessary between the sides of the table and the walls so people can move around. A good minimum is three feet from the table to the nearest wall. That way, someone can squeeze behind a participant sitting at the table.

If there is space, a coffee break service in the room is a wonderful perk. The longer the meeting, the more necessary it is. There should be space to stand at the coffee service without interfering with any participant. Some meeting rooms have a service bar built in. These take up less meeting space and are very effective.

At the front of the room, space for a facilitator to work and write on easels requires five to six feet in front of the table. The facilitator will often have a chair for meals, but it is usually pushed under the table or kept out of the way during most of the meeting.

When setting the room, windows and doors can be a problem. The best setup is for the door to be at the back of the room. That way, attendees can enter and leave without interfering with the facilitator or disturbing the meeting (or at least minimizing the disturbance that will be caused).

Windows should also be at the back of the room or have drapes/shades that can be pulled. There is nothing worse than a meeting where the participants are looking out on a sunny day with a beach or mountains in the view. Their attention will constantly be a million miles away. Uncovered windows at the front of the room are to be avoided at all costs. No one can look at a “back lit” facilitator for very long.

The temperature of the room will never be right for everyone. A simple rule of thumb, it is always better a bit cooler than hotter. Most of us can add a sweater if we get a little chilled (I am not talking about keeping the thermostat at 40 degrees), but there is a limit to what we can remove if it gets too warm. Plus warm encourages sleep.

If you have a thermostat in the room, put one person in control. If everyone is jumping up to swing the setting from one extreme to the other, you end up with anarchy and a very uncomfortable, distracted meeting.

Lighting is the other variable that makes a big difference. Bright light keeps everyone more awake and alert. If your presentations require a projector, get one that works in full light. Where you need to dim the light to see a projected image, try to turn off (or unscrew the light bulbs) that are right above the screen. That way, the working space is still well lit. Remember, dimmed lights (like too warm a temperature) encourage sleep.

Should there be a clock in the room? Since just about everyone will have a watch, you are not going to keep the time a secret. However, the preference is to have the clock, if there is one, in the back of the room. It becomes the official clock and can be used for timing specific discussions or to determine penalties for late returns from breaks.

(One way I get everyone back on time after a break or meal is to set the expectation based on the official clock – my watch if there is no clock in the room; I always pick an odd time like 17 after – it is easier to remember; Then, if anyone is late, they have to tell a joke to the rest of the group; Not a big penalty, but one that seems to work.)

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