For small businesses the conference room usually has multiple uses. It could be a formal setting for board meetings or presentations to important clients. The room could be used for brainstorming sessions where team members get together for longer meetings such as during the annual strategic planning process. It could have a social function as well, hosting birthday parties or other celebratory events. Increasingly it is used for videoconferencing, linking the company with customers, partners or its own employees who are on the road.
Determine the maximum capacity — the largest number of individuals who will be attending meetings. If you want space for 32 people, you will need a room with dimensions of at least 32 feet by 14 feet. You most likely have been in a meeting in a cramped, claustrophobic conference room that made you feel as though you couldn’t wait to for the meeting to end. In designing your conference room, make sure there is ample room for attendees to get up and move around. There may be times when it is advantageous to break up into smaller conversational groups during the meeting. Don’t have so many chairs around the conference room table that people feel elbow to elbow. Comfort is important in the design elements you choose. Chairs in particular must have cushioned upholstery, be roomy and have back supports.
You might have people from outside your company attending in-person conferences, or you might invite them to participate electronically through videoconferencing. Either way, the design and décor of the room will influence how they view your company. Think about the image you want to convey. If yours is a small but trendy, cutting-edge company, you might be able to have a more striking, modernistic décor with bolder colors, unusual chair shapes and striking artwork. Be careful about using colors and shapes that are too bold — they may draw attention away from the presentation you are making. Tasteful, traditional-style tables and chairs are the most popular choices for most small businesses.
Design the conference room so attendees do not have to leave the room to take care of tasks related to the meeting. Install telephone and data ports in the room. Laptop computers, printers and a fax machine also are typically included in the design. The audio/visual screen can be permanently installed or be portable. White boards with erasable markers have long been conference room staples, but you can also install “smart boards” or electronic whiteboards that save the information you mark down into digital files, eliminating the need for transcribing during the meeting.
Choices include the standard boardroom table — a rectangular or oval table with chairs placed all round it. Variations on this include a U shape and a V shape. You might prefer a classroom style, often seen at business conferences in hotels, in which a series of smaller rectangular tables are spaced so all attendees face the front of the room, where the podium is. Two or three people sit at each table. This style allows people to easily get up and leave the room and come back. Another choice is the hollow rectangle, with smaller tables set up so they are joined at the ends with a space in the middle left open. This style is thought to facilitate collaboration.
Having a buffet table with built-in cabinets gives you a surface for serving beverages or snacks and allows you to keep serving dishes, glassware and cutlery neatly put away when not in use. Put a small refrigerator in the conference room so you don’t have to send someone out of the room to bring the refreshments in, and so you can provide a wider variety of beverages.
Lighting design is particularly critical for a conference room where videoconferences will frequently be held. The environment should be evenly lit to minimize shadows in the images so all the participants can be seen clearly. Diffuse fluorescent light is recommended. To prevent glare from sunlight, either set up the room in an area of the building that does not have windows, or install blinds designed to completely darken the room. The area within view of the camera should not be cluttered with objects such as artwork, plants or wall treatments with busy patterns. These can reduce video quality by causing the video compression technology to essentially work harder to clearly capture the images of the people in the room. Reverberation — sound bouncing off hard surfaces — can interfere with audio quality. The solution is to put sound-absorbing material on the ceiling, walls and floors. The U- or V-shaped tables work well — each participant is easily visible on camera.
Anyone who has ever given an important presentation worries that something will go wrong with the technology he is using. The sound won’t work on the videoconference call, or he isn’t able to get the presentation on his laptop to show up on the overhead screen. Besides embarrassment, these technical snafus can cause your small business to lose credibility with the people you are meeting with and trying to impress. A solution is to integrate the technology elements into one “touch panel” control that is as easy to use as a TV remote. For example, if you want to do an in-room presentation, you just touch that button on the panel and the system takes care of the rest. The projection screen is lowered, the projector is turned on, the window shades are closed and the presentation is displayed on the screen.