Bring Out the Blue Chairs

Conference RoomPlace matters. Last week I focused on the way most of us knowledge workers are moving around from one workplace to another, finding “the place just right” for getting our work done.

Sometimes we need a quiet place, sometimes we want to engage with colleagues in an informal lounge-like area, while other times we attend meetings with either focused group decision-making or open-ended brainstorming agendas. Each of those activities works best in a different physical setting.

Okay, that makes sense. But how does the design of the workspace affect your mood, your creativity, your ability to concentrate? More importantly, how does place impact conversation? And how does a change of place change a conversation?

One of my clients several years ago inherited a staff of civil servants, some of whom were “retired on the job.” They were disengaged, bored, putting in their time, and not particularly focused on performing.

Gloria developed a multi-faceted attack for addressing her staff’s malaise. She developed formal, written job descriptions that included performance goals and metrics (she did that collaboratively with the individual job holders so the descriptions, goals, and metrics reflected their knowledge of their own responsibilities as well as hers).

She also developed a “shadowing” activity that quickly became a cross-training and succession planning program. Selected individual employees would spend a day or so a week actively observing, following, and “shadowing” one of their colleagues at work. This process not only helped the “shadower” learn a new job, but at the same time it helped the “shadowee” understand his or her job more completely.

Often during the shadowing process the shadower would stop the shadowee to ask a question like, “Why did you just do that?” or “Why are you filing that document in that drawer?” Those conversations not only helped the shadower, but they usually forced the shadowee to reflect on the work task, often leading either to deeper understanding of what needed to be done, or to a conscious redesign of the work.

These new conversations created a virtual revolution within Gloria’s team; her staff learned to think much more actively about their own work as well as what their colleagues were doing. Details about work flows, procedures, and skill requirements were out in the open, there for all to see, to comment on, and to learn from.

But the most significant change that Gloria introduced – one that quite literally transformed the nature of the conversations in her department – was her purchase of a dozen inexpensive canvas folding chairs.

It had become obvious to Gloria that her team was mired in a set of routine habits that were relatively unproductive. Staff meetings were often uninteresting, low-energy, and full of issue avoidance. No one was engaged; the meetings felt like a waste of time, especially to Gloria.
The meetings had traditionally taken place in the department conference room, which was a classic design: a big wooden table surrounded by uncomfortable chairs in a small, drab room with almost no natural light. There was a white board at one end of the room, and a projector for sharing presentation slides when needed. The side wall had a large but bland painting hanging over a credenza that could hold a pot of coffee and plastic cups, along with some extra pads of paper and a few nondescript ballpoint pens.

Sound familiar?

BlueChair1

But that set of blue canvas chairs led to a dramatic shift in the nature of the group’s conversation [image is of a Bravo Sports Quik Bronze series chair, from Amazon.com].

When Gloria wanted to engage her staff in a brainstorming meeting, or one requiring a tough decision, she would tell everyone “It’s time for a blue chair meeting.” And each staff member would pick up a chair and troop down to the building lobby, or outside onto the plaza (or somewhere else nearby) if the weather was nice.

The team would set up the chairs in a circle, sit down, and start talking to each other as if their answers mattered (which they of course did). As Gloria described it, “The change in the setting, in combination with the informal chairs, created a completely new atmosphere that stimulated all kinds of creative conversation.”

Apply this to your own experience: how different are the conversations that fill your conference rooms, from the ones that take place in the employee lounge, in the company cafeteria, or around the proverbial water cooler?

Place matters. Traditional conference rooms send all kind of signals about what kind of conversations are appropriate. That conference table has a “head end” where the team leader usually sits – the position of power. And the formality of the table and chairs and white board or flip chart tells everyone what the meeting will be like and how it will unfold.

How would the conversation change if you just did something as simple as light a scented candle or put fresh flowers on the table? Why not try something like that at least once?

The next time you want a creative, high-energy meeting filled with open, authentic conversation, find a place that says “Talk openly, we’re all in this together, let’s have fun, and get something done.”

And think about getting your own set of blue canvas chairs.

1 reply
  1. Mark de Roo
    Mark de Roo says:

    Jim,

    On Sunday, I was listening to an interview with Yo Yo Ma, the famed cellist. He mentioned that venues play a huge role in how the music is perceived and heard (acoustics).

    Interestingly, it also affects how the instrument performs. Each environment has a measure of temperature, humidity, and other dynamics that impact how the instrument produces and yields its sound.

    An interesting parallel to the work place and those who “perform” in it, isn’t it?

    Reply

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