What do the boardroom layouts reveal about the company culture?
In the past 20 years of my professional career, I would have done millions of meetings and seen the inside of an equal number of meeting rooms. In the recent past, I have started drawing some uncanny co-relations on the layout of the meeting rooms and the company culture. Believe it or not, we started quoting for projects depending on the board room layouts. One look at the meeting room and we would start visualizing how a project would proceed, how many levels of iterations in designs, how many stakeholders it would run past, how many egos battles we would have to tackle, where will the buck stop etc.
Trying to break it down in my own words.
The built to intimidate
These are huge and opulent. You will be escorted, and mostly be taken in by a separate ‘director's lift' to the top floor with the highest level of security. You dare not ask for a loo break as it has a few rounds of security and access control as well. As soon as you reach the floor you feel an urge to talk softly or not talk at all. Inside the room, you can expect wood-paneled walls, chandeliers, glossy melamine finish table with big executive chairs - the kinds where vertically challenged people, like me, struggle to either touch the feet on the ground or be barely visible above the table. The chair at the head of the table is even bigger and fancier.
Companies with these kinds of setups are usually owner-driven and the buck stops with them. They might not be fully involved with the project, so no matter what you do for months with the people on the ground, it has a potential risk of changing at the last minute completely, when shown to the owner. The employees typically will not speak up in front of the owner or stand up for the decisions that they had made along the journey. Completely ‘the impenetrable hierarchical culture' with no room for challenging the highest authority.
The integrated grand and traditional
Integrated within the office floor but have the luxury of space. They usually have big rectangular tables, mat finish with comfortable executive chairs. Subtle décor. Mostly seen in large structured corporates. They have a lot of wood and sparse small or no whiteboards on the walls.
These setups reflect that although it's hierarchical the top management will often trust and listen to people; they have entrusted the work on. The employees will have a voice but ultimately the decision will lie in the hands of the top management. You can expect multiple layers of iterations as everyone will try and prove a point and you might have to do multiple options to satisfy everyone and give enough to chew for the top management. Things to watch out for: people might be working only for their KRA's and peer competition is the only benchmark. Suggestions are not necessarily in the interest of the project.
We can call this ‘the conventional culture' where the race to the top is more important than the task at hand.
The grand but modern
The ones with similar size meeting rooms as above, but with big glasses and lots of whiteboards. Sometimes these venture into being U-shaped too allowing for people to move around the room and discuss. These are more discussion-oriented and are encouraged to arrive at logical conclusions with the best foot forward to the management. The management might have an opinion but will respect the decisions of the team too. There is a lot more trust in the process and people. More often than not the key decision-makers would like to be a part of discussions. By the time final signoff presentations happen most people are on board with the decisions taken along the way. We can call this ‘the progressive corporate culture'
Now, the whiteboard culture and why it is important is worth highlighting. There is a big difference when you are in a presentation mode versus a discussion mode. When the company follows more presentation mode, means someone has done the work, and people sitting are in a place to evaluate or judge the points presented. The whiteboard mode is where presentation is just an aide to trigger discussion and the room collectively comes to a decision.
The Oval table layout
They have probably grown from being a startup to a mid-size company. Still fighting to keep the start-up culture intact but can't help building in more robust processes. They want to grow and yet retain the free-spiritedness of the employees. The senior management wants to be involved but is mostly time-pressed with other tasks. They are still learning to let go of the close control and monitoring of everything that is happening in the company. What is encouraged here is ‘the clan culture' where collective decisions are encouraged.
The informal layout
More free-flowing layouts, purposefully avoiding a 'head of the table'. They do not believe in hierarchy and everything is a collaborative approach. All decisions are taken with everyone in the room after carefully weighing out all the options. Very energized and enthusiastic work environment. These rooms are very conducive to ideation and discussions. One would most probably enjoy the most working in these environments but for an outside agency its' better to go retainer than fixed price as things will be more agile and decisions might keep changing based on new findings and thought processes that come in play. We want to call this a ‘free-spirited culture'.
So, which one are you?