Walk into any space and consciously or not, that space tells us about how to respond.
We internally feel what we are supposed to do there. We read the physical environment like we read another person’s emotions. The context of the space determines what we do there.
Space is the body language of any conference and its organizational culture.
When you walk into most theaters, the space tells you that you will be sitting passively as you’re entertained. When you walk into most offices, the space articulates that the employees work alone behind closed doors. When you walk into most college lecture halls, the space tells you that a subject matter expert is the focus of the room while everyone else listens and observes.
Library cubicles tell us that it’s for independent work. Conference rooms with huge board tables tell us that people are to be separated from one another. Grocery stores tell us that the space is designed for easy access of products.
The Industrial Revolutions Model For Space
Most work spaces were designed based on the industrial revolution labor model.
It was about a time when work was bound to big machines. We were each trained in schools of lined rows of desks so we consumed information and then produced the same thing. Then when moved to factory lines where we repeated a job task and answered to a supervisor.
Most of our traditional conference spaces follow an industrial revolution labor model as well. Attendees listen to an expert as they passively consume information in order to produce a product. Attendees are to sit quietly, be respectful and act courteous as the expert shares.
If we value innovation and collaboration as conference team sports, we have to change the traditional space. We have to do it differently.
Moving From “I” Spaces To “We” Spaces
Collaboration and innovation needs we spaces, not I spaces.
Creation and collaboration are not bound to a specific room set or area. They transition and evolve throughout a space. They evolve as they absorb different people, perspectives and periods.
One of the things that conference organizers need to consider is how to equalize the respective status of attendees and presenters. There has been a fundamental shift that often people in the room know as much as or even more than the presenter. The collective wisdom of the group is important to tap and refine.
Innovation thrives on equality. When you walk into one of today’s conferences and can’t tell who’s the expert presenting and who’s the participant learning, it’s a good thing. People are reluctant to share ideas with an expert standing at the head of the room.
Reconfiguring the physical relationship of the room is a powerful signal that participation is truly welcome. The result is that you get better ideas in the open where they can flourish and grow.
There’s not just one ideal design for collaborative spaces.
We need lightweight furniture that’s easily moved around the room. We need multiple types of seating and tables. We need to allow collaborative participants to transform the space themselves, moving things around. We need to allow them to create what they need for the experience that they are having at the moment.
Space transmits culture. Conference space can be used not just to represent new cultural values but also to inspire them.
What are some examples of flexible meeting space that has been used effectively for collaboration and innovation? What keeps conference organizers from setting the stage for creative collaborative spaces?
Alicia Rittenhouse says
Wow. That’s interesting insight and as a Gen X I would agree that conference spaces should focus on the “we”. This is especially important for our conference attendees as they highly value networking. We have several opportunities – Speed Networking, Mix N Mingle, Happy Hour, etc, but I would like to see our 100+ educational sessions be more collaborative. Do you have ideas of what other associations have done?