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  • Writer's pictureTracey Camilleri

Room to Learn

We have had some recent conversations with groups who are considering office moves or redesigns as they think about their social strategies upfront.  In the light of these exchanges,  I read Priya Parker’s helpful book “The Art of Gathering” and re-read Stewart Brand’s 1990’s classic “How Buildings Learn”.  The latter begins with an observation that rings true for 2024:


“Between the world and our idea of the world is a fascinating kink.  Architecture, we imagine, is permanent.  And so our buildings thwart us.  Because they discount time, they misuse time.” 


Buildings (note the present participle!) are built to be static - but like it or not – however badly they do it, they have to adapt and learn because of the changing way they are used (though this doesn’t seem to apply to the number of ladies loos at events….).


As the shape of work is currently being redesigned, one of the questions we’re often asked is – “When we do  bring people together in a room – how can we make it matter more?”. Priya Parker has five very practical rules of thumb to consider when thinking about space and how to use it in an optimum way to maximise human interaction:  Perimeter, Displacement, Movement, Embodiment  (though she calls this the ‘chateau’ principle) and Density.


PERIMETER:  People like containment. We like walls and intimacy and freedom within limits. A good piece of research here is The Playground Study . A group of landscape architects experimented by taking away the fence of a school playground to see what happened.  When the fence was in place the children played freely. When it was taken away, they clustered close in the centre around their teacher.  At Thompson Harrison we tend to look for spaces for our programmes that avoid the ‘leakage’ of energy and the anonymity  and disconnect that can happen in slick hotels, huge spaces or busy atriums.  Walls and doors help to build a tribe - and with that feeling the foundations for trust and discretionary effort come too.


DISPLACEMENT: So often we are encouraged to facilitate in a client’s office or meeting room – it’s convenient, people are busy, it’s a low cost solution, people can nip in and out if they need to.  However the counter effect of breaking routine, of the surprise of a changed environment can anchor learning for much longer.  When you leave the office or board room, people no longer sit in their usual places or perform their usual roles in expected ways.  They can’t nip out to deal with an issue – they are present for one another.  We are lucky to situate a portion of our work at Oxford.  People tend to take photos: their visual memories are activated along with their intellectual and emotional capabilities.  Thoughtfully situated learning is stickier and helps with the outside-in thinking that powers innovation.


MOVEMENT:  We have learned that there is merit in building movement into a day.  As ideas progress through a programme, we seek out new locations that can anchor them.  This may only involve a small change of setting – the move to a next door room for example – but the change of scene again prevents the day from blurring into a single memory.  Ideally the movement involves a walk.  Human beings evolved to walk upright, the synchrony of walking together creates social endorphins and bonding that lasts. Elements of journey and discovery are built into the structure of the day.  Surprise is one of the best emotions for learning.


EMBODIMENT:  Parker remembers a meeting she facilitated to finalise the terms of a merger between Alcatel and Lucent.  The meeting was arranged in a chateau in France with gold leaf mirrors and empire chairs – just at a moment when a sense of equality was needed.  The Frenchness and grandiosity of Alcatel was emphasised by the setting and the talks quickly fell apart.  We have struggled similarly with spatial dissonance in the past – facilitating a board strategy meeting in a hotel basement without windows in Chicago for example or trying to lead experiential sessions in hierarchical lecture theatres.  Mostly however we are lucky to have been given permission in the past to work in buildings with stories (even ghosts at West Horsley Place!), in log cabins, rooftop lookouts, medieval colleges (v early work/live environments), gardens, kitchens etc that embody the intent of the day and live on in body and mind.


DENSITY & SENSES : Human beings like to be close but not too close - but right sized rooms are rare.  We think about perfect group size (the magic quantum for intimacy/diversity of thinking/time available/budget) . We think about acoustics (why hold an important dinner when you can’t hear the person across the table from you?), room temperature, natural light and access to fresh air, area per person (too much space and you lose the sense of tribe), comfort, ambient noise (we once had to do an entire week with people sitting on wicker chairs that creaked every time anyone shifted), table shape (ideally no tables), materials, hydration, potential visual annoyances.  Yes, the tech is important but it’s not the only thing.  Social strategies require leaders to think like designers.


The American comedian Jerry Seinfeld, was once hired by a rich audience member who had laughed uproariously at his set in a comedy theatre and so had hired him to perform the same show at his own home.  In the grandness of the private living room,  the comedy fell completely flat.  Seinfeld reflected on the reasons why and concluded, “the room does 80% of the work”. 


Next time you’re planning a gathering, let the room do more of the work for you.

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