work it

Why the Conference Room Is Always Booked, No Matter What You Do

Photo: 2/Thomas Northcut/Corbis

Just a guess, but I bet your process for planning a meeting at work goes something like this: You log on to your company calendar, or spreadsheet, or whatever you use. You pull up the conference-room tab. You look at everyone’s schedules and the schedules of the various always-overbooked rooms, and you’re already exhausted. You finally find a time and a space and send out an invite. Several people email to ask if you can change the time. One of them is your boss, so you look for another time and another room. The others are not your boss, so you suggest they move their other meetings, knowing this will cause a meeting chain reaction that will wreak havoc on the company calendar. You go through several rounds of this. You consider canceling the meeting. You wonder why you ended up with this dead-end task. You wonder why the rooms have such stupid names. Finally, you manage to find a date that is not six months from now. You book the room.

Then, at the appointed time, you and the others arrive at the conference room. It is full. No one looks up when you hover outside the door. Finally you stick your head in and say, “Hey, are you guys wrapping up? We booked this room,” and someone from your least favorite department insists that you could not have, because he did. This happens whether it’s true or not. It happens whether you have a standing meeting or if you just booked the room for an hour. You fight the urge to open your laptop and show him that you did indeed book the room, and then you wonder what kind of person you’ve become to feel this level of rage over meetings.

Meanwhile, the people you’re supposed to be meeting with stand around in the hall with their laptops looking like they’re waiting for the bus to the Apple Genius Bar. Eventually, you and the other conference-room rejects begin the meeting-room-quest parade, marching around the office and looking into different rooms to see if there’s space available. In the end, you decide to have a meeting on the arm of a couch in the front lobby. Ten minutes into that meeting some other people show up and tell you they’ve booked the arm of the couch.

I know this is your meeting, because this is my meeting, every day, all the time. I’ve worked everywhere from start-ups and Fortune 500 companies, and after completing a random-yet-thorough survey of offices across the greater New York City area, I’m can report that, truly, no one has any goddamned conference rooms.

Why? I have the same question. Here’s what I found out: For one thing, we are having more meetings. Joe Allen is an assistant professor of industrial and organizational psychology who studies meetings. (You read that right: The study of meetings is an academic field.) “Recent estimates suggest there are 25 million meetings a day in the U.S.,” Allen says. “That’s at least double since 1999.” One study found that 35 percent of a middle manager’s day is spent in meetings. Which sounds crappy until you compare it with upper managers, who spend about three-quarters of their day in a meeting. More meetings, more demands on conference rooms.

Supply is clearly falling far short of demand. Older buildings weren’t designed for our current meeting lovefest. A typical layout involves a maze of cubicles, a few individual offices, and only one or two conference rooms. This landscape is based on a notion of work that is more hierarchical, and spaces for people to collaborate and connect aren’t built in. And these floor plans aren’t flexible — to create another conference room would mean getting rid of someone’s work space. Those with offices can have the ability to host small gatherings, but everyone else is always on the hunt for places to meet.

A shiny new photo-shoot-friendly open-plan office isn’t always the answer, either, as anyone who has ever looked for a conference room in one can tell you. For one thing, open-plan offices have an economic imperative to cram as many people onto the floor as possible (good-bye, cubicles; hello, hot desking!). From this mind-set, a conference room feels like wasted space. Then there is false optimism. Tech companies want to believe that the work of the future involves fewer meetings. This is laudable, but I think we all know that that future is a long ways away. (Look at your calendar.) Designing an office with limited meeting space is like buying a gym membership. It’s planning for behavior you hope to have in the future, not behavior you actually have now.

But the reality is that any space saved with an open-plan office should be put back into conference-room space. “If less than 12 percent of the workforce is in a private office, there should be one conference seat for every employee, in addition to that person’s workstation,” says Joe Connell, a workplace architect who has designed offices for IDEO, Herman Miller, and Leo Burnett. “That’s a hard number for people to get to.” Moreover, companies don’t really want to provide enclosed spaces for employees to hide out in, because the current business Zeitgeist is that chance encounters in the hallway or random meetings in the café area lead to collaboration and innovation. Which explains why every modern office these days has an area in it that looks like it was plucked out of some Google-meets-a-college-dorm-meets-Danish-modern-design catalogue: Your employer is hoping that you and a co-worker will reach for the kale chips at the same time and become work BFFs. And they won’t need to give you a conference room to do it in, just some picnic tables in a corner.

If nothing else, the near-universal frustration over conference-room shortages could be a useful workplace solidarity builder. Perhaps standing around fighting over meeting space isn’t a design flaw — it’s a faux chance encounter that has been intricately architected by someone who thinks this is a way to get employees to collaborate. And once we’re done sniping behind each others’ backs about who erased whose name from the calendar system, we’ll book a room to discuss it.

Why the Conference Room Is Always Booked