Caring About Place

by Peter Block

In one way or another, we are all trying to make the transition from the industrial era of predictability and control to the service/information era of choice and participation. One obstacle is that most of the rooms in which we come together were designed for the industrial age. It is almost impossible to find a room in an office building or a hotel that is suited for dialogue and participation. They are mostly suited for instruction and persuasion.

To begin with, most of the tables are rectangular. If you sit on either side of a rectangular table, you can not see most of the people on your side of the table. It’s hard to engage people you can not see.  Putting the tables in a U shape or a square still blinds us to a third or a fourth of those in the room.  Board rooms are the worst. The tables are fixed and monumental. It clearly was never expected that real conversation would be required.

Each time the room is arranged for people to interact with the speaker rather than each other, we reinforce passive contact and the values of the industrial culture. It doesn’t matter, then, what is said, the structure of the room carries its own message.

In addition to the furniture, training and meeting rooms are primarily designed for persuasion and display, either with the speaker in the room or a speaker in another location. Most of the new money spent to design meeting space goes into electronics and projection equipment. In a recent article Training Magazine identified the best ten conference rooms in the country. Why are they the best…because they have spent the most money on electronic technology. In some cases, rooms designed for less than thirty people have over $250,000 in the walls, floors and ceiling. With this kind of investment in the walls, you are not about to have the seats facing each other.

What does this say about our beliefs about connecting and communicating. We will spend a fortune on talking to someone we can not see, and in the process arrange the room so that we all face the front and face the wall. These rooms are artifacts of an industrialized and electronic culture. We are in love with technology in a way that far exceeds our interest in connecting with each other. To say that the technology connects us is a myth. It confuses information exchange with human interaction. There is nothing wrong with the technology, we just exaggerate its usefulness.

In a broader sense, we are culturally blind about the power of the physical place. We are willing to meet in rooms without windows, walls without color or pictures, doors with no moldings. Windows, color, art and architectural detail bring life and humanity into a setting. If you are in the business of training, running meetings, convening people, it is almost impossible to find a room in this country that is designed to have people really talk to each other.

The symbol for participation is a circle. Round tables put each of us in sight of everyone. Seats in a circle do the same. Even a room full of round tables has an interactive effect. Don’t worry about having some people with their back to the front. The action is not in the front of the room, it is at the tables.  Eventually we will have whole rooms and buildings designed to hold the circle. Saturn and Harley Davidson have understood the importance of the circle in the design of their buildings.

Other organizations are also experimenting with new communal space. The Boeing Company has “visibility” rooms designed to continually display the goals, values and progress of large projects. John Warner, a senior executive at Boeing, started to experiment with the structure of his visibility room in order to get deeper participation. First he got rid of the large table and had only chairs with a few, low, coffee tables to put your stuff on. Then he brought in plants, to add some life to the environment. They then noticed that the neon lighting was cold and institutional, so they brought in floor lamps. This, however, was going too far. It started to feel like a living room. Out came the lamps, but the chairs, the plants and the intent to design a room for open dialogue and human encounter remain.

The point is not that there is a right design for a room, it is about our consciousness. As we get more conscious about the impact of how we physically come together, we will start to redesign our common space. This will require the joint effort of furniture designers, architects, hotel executives, organizational real estate people, and those of us who convene the meetings.