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Conference Room Conflict: Office Densification Creates Need for Flexible Meeting Areas

02/06/2015 01:02 pm ET | Updated Apr 08, 2015
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Corporate offices may be shrinking in terms of square footage as businesses of all sizes adopt the open office model, but demand for conference rooms is on the rise as workplace privacy becomes increasingly harder to come by in this world of office densification.

The shift away from private offices toward shared workspaces has coincided with steady increases in the amount of time spent in meetings -- a number that has jumped from eight to 10 percent annually since 2000, according to the Wall Street Journal -- creating a perfect storm that, on occasion, has pitted employees against one another when vying for time in the conference room.

Employers were quick to embrace open offices, believing they would help them attract young professionals who value teamwork and collaboration. But, in doing away with private, individual workspaces, many companies took the open office concept too far. By failing to account for employee privacy by repurposing some of this space into meeting areas, employers created volatility in the workplace that undermined the collaborative environment they were trying to create.

In order to resolve this issue, or avoid it entirely, it's important for businesses to offer a variety of meeting areas that can accommodate groups of different sizes. These include:

  • Conference Rooms (8+ people): Conference rooms are often the epicenter of the workplace and, as such, the go-to place for meetings and phone calls. While these spaces are ideal for large groups, they're frequently used by just a handful of people or, in some cases, a single individual, creating inefficiencies in the workplace that can lead to conflicts among coworkers. Because they're often equipped with technology to handle everything from video conferences to interactive presentations, these spaces should be reserved for more formal uses, rather than for casual conversations that could take place elsewhere.
  • Huddle Rooms (2-8 people): A recent study by St. Louis-based architecture and design firm, HOK, found that 73 percent of meetings involve just two to four people, yet more than half of conference rooms are built to accommodate groups of seven or more. The addition of smaller huddle rooms enables companies to reclaim some of this lost space. They also make for a more engaging conversation by bringing everyone closer together instead of having four people sit around a conference room table designed for 12.
  • Phone Rooms (1-2 people): Larger than a phone booth, but smaller than a typical office, these rooms give employees a private space to take calls without disturbing their colleagues, or taking up an entire conference room. If two coworkers need to have a private conversation, or listen in on a call, these rooms are easily able to accommodate them. They also double as a quiet space for people who need to make a personal call, or have a hard time staying focused at their desk.
  • Cafeterias/Lounges: They may not offer as much privacy, but cafeterias and lounges are ideal for solo and small group work that can take place in a more casual setting. Historically, workers went to the conference room because it was the only communal space available, not because they particularly enjoyed working there. Thanks, in part, to companies like Google and Apple, informal workspaces have become increasingly popular as employers try to appeal to the tastes of younger professionals. With millennials projected to make up 75 percent of the workforce by 2025, demand for flexible work environments will only continue to increase in the years ahead.

Just as important as offering employees a variety of workspaces to choose from is having systems in place to manage them. This can be something as simple as a sign-up sheet posted outside each meeting area, or as elaborate as tablets with digital scheduling systems that can be synced to online calendars. If a meeting host fails to check in, these systems will let others in the office know the space is available, eliminating inefficiencies caused by meetings that don't end up taking place.

Three other steps businesses can take to minimize conference room conflicts are:

  1. Set and enforce time limits: Many meeting rooms are reserved days or weeks in advance, sometimes requiring people to book space before they have a realistic idea of how long a meeting will actually take. It's easy to block off four hours, but if a meeting is finished after two, most employees will have no way of knowing a room has opened up. Companies should therefore cap the amount of time that can be reserved, especially in large conference rooms, with longer meetings requiring approval from upper management.
  2. Offer "un-reservable" spaces: Most cafeterias and lounges are first-come, first-served, but it's also a good idea to offer at least one private meeting area that cannot be booked in advance. This accommodates employees with last-minute needs, and even gives workers a place to go if their meeting in a reserved area runs long.
  3. Consider sending an email instead: Having too many meetings consistently ranks amongst the top productivity-killers in the workplace, according to Salary.com's annual "Wasting Time at Work" survey. Before scheduling a meeting, employees and managers should ask themselves whether an email or call would suffice. Doing so will not only increase worker productivity, but also free up conference space for other uses.


Frank Chalupa is president and co-founder of Amata Office Solutions, a Chicago-based real estate provider specializing in office solutions for companies requiring up to 10,000 square feet of office space.