piece of work

Does Your Office Suffer From Conference Room Aggression?

Photo: Martin Barraud/Getty Images

Piece of Work is a column about workplace behavior and feelings: everything that happens at the office, except your actual job.

Every other Tuesday, my co-workers and I gather outside the conference room designated for our late-afternoon ideas meeting, and wait. Another group has the room for the hour before we do, and they tend to run over by a minute or two. It would be one thing if our meeting wasn’t always at the same time, or in the same room, or the walls of the conference room weren’t glass, so that they can see us looming outside, but it is, and they are. Every other Tuesday, my co-workers and I joke about bursting into this room and declaring our territory at 4 p.m. sharp, but we never do.

I have decided to name this phenomenon — in which one or more employees of a company become inexplicably, exaggeratedly annoyed by another’s delayed evacuation of a reserved room — conference room aggression. It’s not full-on anger, exactly (it dissipates too quickly), nor is it directed at any specific co-worker (at least not in my case). It’s a more childish territorialism, combined with an unwelcome reminder of my place as a cog in the larger machine. I have nothing against the individuals who make up the offending meeting. But as a collective, representing, more than anything, the Man — well, I hate them. No offense.

I feel a bit silly admitting this now, but I know I’m not alone in my conference room aggression (or CRA, for short). Even my nicest, always smiling co-worker tells me she suffers from CRA. “To me, the most awkward moment is kicking someone out of a room, especially if it’s a big group,” she says. “What are you supposed to say without sounding uptight?” She always apologizes, even when it’s they who should apologize.

There is something about being at work that makes us behave and interact in ways we wouldn’t elsewhere, and perhaps getting mad about something as stupid as a two-minute meeting delay is part of that. As Liz Fosslien (a strategy and design consultant) and Mollie West Duffy (an organizational designer) write in their new book, No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work, the modern workplace is an “emotional minefield.” This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but the feelings we feel at work do impact our job satisfaction (and our productivity), and those feelings are informed by cues we pick up on all day, every day.

“There are these small things we all pick up on every day that create a culture, for good or for bad,” says Duffy. When we notice ourselves overcome by irritation at something “small” at work — like CRA, for instance — it’s probably because it’s something we’ve witnessed countless times, consciously or not. “Culture often sounds like this really large thing that comes from the top down, but it’s actually created by all of these small interactions and gestures and signals,” adds Fosslien. “So people seeing you through the glass door and not vacating the room is a signal, like, ‘I don’t care about your time.’” It’s not so much about the one or two minutes every other week, then, as it is what they come to represent over time.

Conference room aggression, says Duffy, is just one symptom of what she and Fosslien see as a larger workplace epidemic, in which human beings seemingly forget how to treat each other as … human beings. In their book, the authors write about the Ritz-Carlton’s now-infamous “10-5 Rule,” which states that employees who pass within ten feet of a guest must make eye contact and smile, while employees who pass within five feet of a guest must say hello. (The rule has since been adopted by many a corporate consultant and leadership seminar as general good practice between employees, as well as employees and guests.)

That we need to be reminded to acknowledge our fellow human beings while at work speaks to how distorted our workplace norms can become, says Duffy. Most people don’t like to be in someone else’s way, and most people don’t want to hamper another person’s work. If we could remember to think of ourselves as humans, not workers, we could eliminate considerable workplace tension. It’s not about the conference room so much as it is the essential human desire to be treated with respect. Conference room aggression is perhaps, then, an acute manifestation of the larger reality that there isn’t enough to go around — wage growth is stagnant, and economic insecurity is rising, and an ever-growing gig economy means many of us aren’t able to earn a livable wage from one job alone. Employees in 2019 are primed to approach their workplaces with stress, and then some joker in accounting thinks he can just waltz in and out of conference rooms as he pleases? No. If you can’t count on getting to use the room you asked to use at the time you asked to use it, what can you count on getting from work? If we must all be underpaid and overworked, shouldn’t we at least respect each other’s time?

“Compassion is what this comes down to,” Duffy adds. “You have a call. I’m aware, and I’m empathizing with the fact that you have a call, so I’m going to get out of this room.”

While on tour to promote their book, Duffy and Fosslien say they encountered a number of suggestions for companies afflicted with CRA. “One of the things we heard was a suggestion to schedule your meetings to be five or ten minutes before the hour or half-hour, just as an organization-wide thing,” says Duffy. “I think of it as passing period. We all had that in high school and college. Why has that gone away?” A good point. In one office Fosslien visited, they’d installed an iPad inside every conference room and set it to display a flashing warning screen when a meeting had five minutes remaining. I like this idea a lot also. Anything that works to make meetings shorter is a good thing.

The main thing, say Duffy and Fosslien, is to talk about your conference room aggression. One key to successfully raising a workplace gripe is to present it with at least one idea for a solution. “You could say to your office, ‘I notice we’re not giving conference rooms up on time. Here’s one idea I had to deal with it, but let’s come up with others and then vote on the best way.” When I say this sounds like a good way to get your co-workers to call you a narc, Duffy concedes that there will always be eye-rollers, but that most people respond better when they hear the need behind a request (i.e., “When I don’t call my sources on time, they lose trust in me”). Being honest about why something bothers you is hard, but it also helps your co-workers to see you as human, she explains.

Another strategy you might try is writing a general blog post about conference room aggression and publishing it on your website, but I’m not sure yet how well that works.

Do You Have Conference Room Aggression?