Positions of Power: Conference Rooms Revisited

Meeting areas are simultaneously one of the most desired areas in an office and one of the most unused (something interestingly highlighted in an article by Andrew Mawson in OfficeInsight). This could be in part because conference rooms are mis-designed for their actual use. One interesting consideration for conference rooms is an understanding of how the space affects the posture of the people in it – and how that can influence their behavior.

Power pose
photo credit: Victor1558

Andrew Yap, a business researcher with Columbia, has done two significant studies on how posture and body position impacts behavior. Basically, there are two types of positions: open and closed. In an open position, a person is loose, possible even stretched out (such as reaching for objects), while in a close positions, the person’s limbs are kept close to the torso. An open position is clearly a dominant position, and there were measurable and direct effects to the body chemistry of a person (male or female) in that position:

  • Increased testosterone levels
  • Decreased cortisol levels (a hormone related to stress)

That change in chemistry impacts behavior and attitude, especially for actions that increase risk tolerance. An openness to risk had some negatives (like experiments showing an increased likelihood to cheat and to drive recklessly), but it also had significant positives, such as increasing creative and original ideas, improving mood and productivity, and inspiring a willingness to change.

That actually does have an impact on the design of conference rooms. Yap’s study revealed two things. First, the effects of body position occurred naturally, when the subject was not even aware of the posture, such as creating a task where the person had to reach for objects or where the person was confined. Second, the affects were invisible to the subjects themselves, who rated their own mental state as being unchanged even when both chemical levels and other people’s assessments observed a difference.

So creating a certain environment has a direct and measurable influence even if your employees are never consciously aware of it.

When looking at conference or meeting rooms, it is imperative to realize that the purposes of meetings are different. That means that the design should be different. This impacts everything: the shape of the table, the sizes and numbers of chairs, the open space in the room.

There are three ways of viewing meeting types, depending on the desired interactions: collaborative, persuasive, or adversarial. Each of these has different requirements for designing an ideal conference room.


Collaborative meeting

These are project meetings, brainstorming sessions, types of meetings where people are working together toward a creative goal. These are the situations where everyone should feel equal within the group and powerful. The structure should enforce open postures, to maximize the surge of productivity, creativity, and risk.


Persuasive conference room

This is a more structured environment where two groups are working toward a common goal, but for different reasons. Think of a consulting firm, where a consultant and client are working jointly on a project. The idea here is to extend a feeling of graciousness and comfort so that the atmosphere is constructive and positive.

It’s not specifically related to conference room design, but Roger Dawson, a business negotiator, tells how a British admiral invited an Argentine admiral aboard ship after the Argentinian loss in the Falklands War. The British admiral hosted a luxurious dinner and thanked the Argentine leader for a “splendid campaign.” A show of graciousness helped the peace negotiations.

That attitude is a mindfulness of the other party that is beneficial in many business situations.

  • Have a coffee service or other snacks available to be welcoming and comfortable.
  • If possible, use round tables to foster a sense of equality. Otherwise, arrange the seats in a circular way to prevent a hierarchical structure.
  • Have an adequate number of power outlets for laptops and other devices so everyone can participate.
  • Use larger chairs that encourage open postures while sitting. Make sure that the chairs are adjustable to minimize any disparities in height.

The balance of seating and space is crucial – plan it carefully, using more than the minimum requirements.


Adversarial meeting space
photo credit: EricDanPhoto

It’s an old trope of imperial bosses to have a big chair while employees sit in a much shorter chair or for the boss to have a massive, looming desk. Having a disparity in furniture size creates a perception of power and can be very psychologically effective. However, adversarial conference room arrangements lead to very negative associations, and there are few instances where it is truly appropriate. Most of these elements are really things to be avoided:

  • Using oversized furniture in a small room.
  • Having too many chairs or too little clearance around chairs.
  • Using bold colors in a small space, creating a sense of being confined.
  • Using smaller chairs in a conference room, creating a sense of being confined – which can be compounded if participants have different sized chairs.
  • Using chairs of a fixed size, rather than adjustable, emphasizing a lack of control.
  • Using large, rectangular tables, establishing a strong power structure.