There is a time in every meeting when there is a moment of clarity: Your mind is sharp and focused; your body, comfortable and relaxed; looking around your swanky conference room, your colleagues are equally engaged in the meeting; and the well-crafted presentation is concise and thought-provoking. This moment of clarity is usually shattered by the sharp nod of your head as you jolt yourself out of sleep. You awake to find yourself in yet another long, drawn-out, meandering, uncomfortable meeting.Yet, meetings do not have to be Kafkaesque nightmares. Beyond having another cold cup of stale coffee, it is possible to stay alert and focused during conferences. Not surprisingly, facility design plays an important role in nurturing successful meetings.Necessary Evils"It is funny - when we question people in our sessions about meetings, we never ask for just negative descriptions; yet, we always get a ton of negative comments," says Doug Staneart, chief executive officer, The Leaders Institute. According to Staneart, the biggest complaint is that meetings are too long and boring. A Fort Worth, TX-based management consultant firm, The Leaders Institute holds several different meeting sessions to foster leadership abilities, public speaking, and networking. "Rarely do we get comments from people that meetings are effective or money-making," says Staneart.From a time management standpoint, the first thing to do to have more effective meetings is to have fewer meetings. Frequently due to corporate culture, according to Staneart, meetings occur out of habit and not out of necessity. "If you can do something without a meeting, do it. Never have a meeting just to have a meeting," says Staneart.Meetings can also become stymied because of extraneous comments and confrontations between participants. Staneart strongly stresses the importance of having an agenda and sticking to it, as well as having a strong leader at the helm. "The No. 1 way to prevent conflicts in meetings is to have a great leader, because a great leader will be able to squash conflicts when they come up," says Staneart.The Leaders Institute offers several practical tips to facilitate successful meetings:Have an agenda. Outline ahead of time what points will be covered in the meeting. Write it out, and distribute it to participants ahead of time.Follow the agenda. While this sounds elementary, it is common for people to take the time to create an agenda and then totally disregard it during the meeting.Limit the agenda to three points. Always ask yourself, "What are the three most important things we need to cover in this meeting?"Set a time limit. The Leaders Institute suggests setting the time limit for a meeting to 30 minutes. In the future, meetings can be shortened by five minutes until the time limit is 15 minutes. This will cause the leader of the meeting to be more efficient and the participants to be more focused.Encourage participation from everyone, but don't force them. Instead of going around the table and asking for opinions, just ask a question and let people volunteer. There will be times during any meeting that each person will phase out; calling on every person wastes time and puts people on the spot.Another strategy to prevent confrontations and straying off-topic during a meeting is to have a "parking lot": a presentation board where comments not related to agenda items are placed. These comments will be addressed at the end of the meeting. Often by meeting's end, most people who have contributed comments that were placed in the "parking lot" will say these comments have been addressed or were not that important. Adds Staneart, "A lot of times people just want to hear themselves talk and they want to get their opinion out."The Leaders Institute offers seminars to promote people skills and train individuals to be better leaders. In addition to limiting conflicts, a strong meeting leader should cancel unnecessary meetings and encourage participants to adhere to the agenda items.While strong leadership goes a long way toward making meetings productive, the physical space itself is an important, yet often overlooked, participant in a productive meeting. How much time is wasted looking for a proper space to hold a meeting? Or how much time is lost figuring out audio-visual (AV) equipment?Straight to VideoAudio-visual technology is a huge topic, including screen sizing, light placement, light values, and more. Increasingly, facility managers are dealing with this rapidly changing technology. "When I started my career in AV, it was pushing the 60 millimeter cart around high school and showing movies," jokes Bill Natthews, senior associate at Shen, Milsom & Wilke, Chicago.Shen, Milsom & Wilke, an international technology consulting practice founded in 1986, offers comprehensive services in the areas of multi-media/audio-visual, information technology/telecommunications, building security, and acoustics. The firm has offices in New York City; Princeton, NJ; Washington, D.C.; Chicago; Houston; Denver; San Francisco; Las Vegas; London; Dubai; and Hong Kong, and a staff of more than 140 professionals. Shen, Milsom & Wilke started as an acoustical consulting company for a wide variety of facility types before expanding into multiple disciplines.Technology for presentations advanced from mimeographed sheets of paper to slide projectors and audio-cassettes to multiple projectors, and finally, to the computer age with video projectors. "This really created an environment where we have to start integrating things because you had a rear projector room and all of these devices and components to create the images and the individuals were not technologically savvy," explains Natthews.Computer-controlled systems have developed to a point where they manage practically everything within a conference room environment, including shades, screens, lighting, and images. More recently, these controls are being integrated into building controls, enabling the conference room environment to be controlled remotely from another location. "Now when people run into a problem, they can just hit a help button and they can be connected to someone down the hallway or in another city and that person can talk you through how to operate the system," says Natthews.The industry is approaching a concept known as convergence, where traditional AV (the image on the screen) is meshing with IT (access to the content on the network and the ability to manage and manipulate the information in a conference's infrastructure). The convergence of AV and IT can be applied to a single meeting room, an entire campus, or a worldwide corporation. "I know of companies that are fully supporting all of their operations globally from India," says Natthews.Increasingly, organizations are considering convergence, which allows companies to have uniformity in their conference rooms regardless of location. "We are moving things toward enterprise solutions because it does not make sense to require somebody in one town to learn one set of skills and in another town to learn a different set of skills for the same type of work," says Natthews. Because the core purpose of meeting rooms is to assist communications, convergence streamlines the process.The biggest mistake Natthews has seen facilities managers make regarding conference rooms is a shortsighted analysis of which applications can realize a return on investment (ROI). One of the new technologies coming to the forefront that can deliver this ROI is on-demand room scheduling and the ability to bill back departments for room usage. One such example from Steelcase features a small touchscreen by the doorway that displays the meeting in place. The technology has a card swipe to effect a change or schedule a meeting. There are also custom versions of this technology."Most people do not recognize what the ROI would be," notes Natthews. "In a typical corporate infrastructure, if you see no one is in a meeting room, most people go in and start using it, and five minutes later, your meeting is interrupted." In addition to causing frustration, there is the cost of lost time associated with disrupted and delayed meetings. With scheduling software management, departments can be charged for the amount of time they use a conference room. Adds Natthews, "For facilities managers, this is great news. They have created a pipeline to cost justify their building out of rooms."With scheduling management software, it is possible to create reports on the maintenance of conference rooms, equipment usage, and room usage. This information can be used by facilities management to predict trends in technology needs. For example, a building owner can construct a facility with 10 meeting rooms, but only fully outfit two meeting rooms. Then, the facilities department can examine usage to see what components within the conference rooms are used most and use that knowledge to properly outfit the remaining conference areas.Well-dressed BoardroomSpeaking of properly outfitting a conference room, the furniture in a meeting room must perform its function, comfort the body, and impress the eye. "The vast majority of chair backs are a solid plane and non-articulated in terms of their surface," says Leo Welter, product manager, seating, KI, Green Bay, WI. Because many chair backs are static when an end-user leans back, an individual's back loses critical support, which is called the lumbar gap.When seated for a long time, the body will attempt to adapt to this lumbar gap, slouching into an uncomfortable C-shape instead of the natural S-shape of the spine, notes Welter. "When your spine assumes the shape of a C to find support, you are compressing your lower discs and, hence, you often feel lower back pain at the end of a meeting." The KI solution to this issue is the Impulse chair, designed by renowned Italian furniture designer Giancarlo Piretti, which adjusts automatically to mirror the body's natural movements. The chair's upper and lower back section have separate pivot points."If the back of the chair disconnects from your back at some point, it is not supporting your body, and a lack of support is a lack of comfort," says Welter. Welter encourages facilities managers to include end-users in a meaningful way in furniture selection."No one should buy a car based on a test drive; similarly, on chairs we see far too many end-user evaluations based on [individuals] using a chair for 30 seconds. This is the proverbial butt test!" says Welter. Instead of the "butt test," Welter recommends allowing a group of end-users to test chairs for a full eight hours. Some corporations are already experimenting with extended testing periods for seating selection.Bottom Line: Comfort"What people are looking for is flexibility, comfort, style - all at an affordable price. The days of the sacred board-room, the formal boardroom, that was used once a quarter - those days are long gone," says Dave Burdakin, president, HON Industries, Muscatine, IA. Burdakin is seeing more companies opting for flexible furniture in conference rooms, so that these spaces can be used for multiple purposes. To meet companies' needs for reconfigurability, HON offers Tercero, a mobile conference table available in multiple shapes that can be adapted to users' needs. Adds Burdakin, "The furniture coordinates and fits together in a variety of configurations using quick-release connectors."Because so many organizations are moving employees to smaller workspaces, there is a greater need for areas that allow formal and informal meetings, according to Burdakin. "As budgets become tighter and people are shrinking the footprints for each individual, there will be the need for people to come together and work on projects and collaborate," says Burdakin.From audio-visual equipment to ergonomics, the most important aspect of conference rooms is how they support all of the needs of an organization. Too often, conference rooms are afterthoughts with a motley collection of assorted furniture or spaces trapped in a time warp. Instead, meeting rooms should most strongly convey the message of your organization.From Drab to DynamiteUnderserved by its former workspace, Bader Rutter & Associates, a leading marketing and communications agency in Brookfield, IL, worked with the firm's architectural team and BoiseWorkspace, Itasca, IL, to create a new office space for its 135 employees. BoiseWorkspace is the full-service contract furniture unit of BOISE Office Solutions. "I remember visits to [the firm's] old conference room, and it was a typical large conference room; there was no place to plug in or do anything. It was a nice big room, but it was not one of those that stimulated your creativity," says Molly Kelly, operations manager, BoiseWorkspace.There were three main issues to address: First, the firm was looking to create a 'wow factor' to impress prospective clients and to reflect the firm's creativity; second, the space had to feature a place for clients to work individually and collaborate with the firm; third, the company was moving from a space with private offices to open workstations. "Whether subliminally or very obviously, the conference room should say to clients, 'This is what we do.' " says Kelly. BoiseWorkspace listened to what the agency wanted to achieve and sought appropriate products for the application.The overall design of the new 54,000-square-foot office, especially within the conference spaces, truly reflected Bader Rutter & Associates corporate mission. Currently, there are eight conference rooms of varying sizes. Featuring an impressive 18-foot-long Krug table, the main conference room is a welcoming stage for client presentations. Directly adjacent to the conference rooms, the firm also set aside small enclosed offices with a land phone line and a computer data port, which clients can use after meetings to get work done.Curved like a machete, the main conference table has an unusual striking shape, giving every participant a good line of sight during presentations. With tabletop power and data connections, the main conference room is conducive to presentations, training, and video-conferencing. The room also features a matching lectern and buffet credenza for snacks, as well as lounge seating for break-out sessions. "You walk in there, and before the presentation begins, the room sets the tone," says Kelly. The walls' beautiful, unique sycamore finish is continued on the custom-built conference table.Pockets of CreativityFor multi-media presentations, the main conference room has a ceiling projector and a retractable screen. With a touch pad at the front of the room, end-users can easily choose which data port will do the input to project on to the screen. The agency's new office also has small, ad hoc seating areas with Internet connections throughout the space. These gathering areas have become popular sites for small informal meetings. "If a couple of people decide that they want to break out from the group, there are nice areas for them to do it," says Jeff Wedeward, senior vice president, Bader Rutter & Associates.To have end-user input, a group of agency associates made several trips to the Merchandise Mart in Chicago to view and sample the furniture products. "We wanted to make sure that [Bader Rutter & Associates] understood what we were trying to convey, and to see the quality, because this can be a very overwhelming and confusing selection," says Kelly."We were also given the opportunity to try out various chairs," says Nicole Miller, account executive, Bader Rutter & Associates. "It was exciting after being in the old space and to see these really cool chairs come out." For a two-week period, Bader Rutter staff members were able to sample the seating choices. Adds Kelly, "It was a real Goldilocks test."It doesn't all happen in the conference room, and the design - fabrics, colors, and the panel system - of Bader Rutter & Associates' new space carries creativity throughout the office. The agency is impressed with the distinctive, modern look of its office and the increased functionality. "We have [received] comments from clients that the design has facilitated meetings, making them easier to do," says Wedeward. Now, every conference room has a projector already set up and all end-users need to do is plug in a laptop.Meetings flow smoothly, instead of people running around looking for projectors and screens and getting help hooking up - like you do in so many instances," says Wedeward. In addition to saving time and reducing stress among the agency's associates, the redesign of the conference rooms has boosted the firm's impression among clients.In Buddhism, Nirvana is defined as "the ineffable ultimate in which one has attained disinterested wisdom and compassion." In Hinduism, it is known as "an emancipation from ignorance and the extinction of all attachment." In general usage, Nirvana is considered an ideal condition of rest, harmony, stability, or joy. While obtaining true Nirvana in a meeting room may be out of reach, facilities professionals can help to create ideal conditions for learning and expressing viewpoints. With responsive design of conference rooms and effective leadership, meetings can really be educational, harmonious, and productive.Regina Raiford Babcock ([email protected]) is senior editor at Buildings magazine and lead editor for BI-Buildings Interiors.