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Informal meetings are key to innovative ideas

  • Young offices are moving away from confining conference rooms to foosball tables or cafes to have productive meetings
  • Office design specialists across the world are also taking note of the informal meeting venue trend and accommodating it in their designs

Rohan Pant (right) with Ishan Gupta, MD of Udacity, says their best brainstorming sessions happen over foosball.
Rohan Pant (right) with Ishan Gupta, MD of Udacity, says their best brainstorming sessions happen over foosball.

The adrenaline is pumping as the top brass and employees of 91springboard, a co-working community created for startups and business owners, chase the ball around the field in Panjim, Goa. The football matches—held all over India—may have started as a team-building exercise, but they’ve metamorphosed into informal, early morning meetings that often get a lot more accomplished than traditional, sit-down ones, at least for the Goa branch of the company. Goa-based Anil George, vice president, operations, 91springboard, says, “While ‘work, work’ may not be discussed at all these games, spending time with those you don’t get a chance to meet during work hours helps people approach each other with a sense of comfort that eases work." He believes that at least for the Goa team, meeting up in an informal setting early in the morning also gives team members and leads an opportunity to go over their work schedule for the day and prioritize short and long-term tasks.

Ayush Pranav, portfolio analyst, at the Goa branch of 91springboard whole-heartedly agrees that the football games have increased accessibility. “The matches are fun, but the other upside is that we get to mingle with the senior management. That works out well for all of us," says the 25-year-old.

Office design specialists across the world are also taking note of the informal meeting venue trend and accommodating it in their designs. While a stoic boardroom setting may be needed for many meetings, an informal setting often works better for internal meetings as it allows for more effective collaboration and idea sharing.

In a blog post, The rise of the informal workplace, Anna Dejlova, senior designer at UK-based office design specialist Morgan Lovell, writes that modern offices demand informal meeting spaces that are “agile and able to accommodate groups of different sizes and in different ways. Using cafeterias and lounges as impromptu meeting spaces not only reduces the pressure on space but also encourages a more informal and collaborative working environment," she says.

Making meetings work

In a 2014 study, Get Up, Stand Up: The Effects of a Non-Sedentary Workspace on Information Elaboration and Group Performance, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, reported that groups working together on a project while standing were more engaged and less territorial than while seated. The findings, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, showed “increased sharing of information and ideas to statistically significant degrees".

Reason enough then for companies to get their employees out of the boring seated meetings. But it is not just the sitting or standing that makes meetings more effective. At Udacity, a Silicon Valley-based edtech company, employees often head to the foosball and mini-golf tables when it’s time to brainstorm. These areas are also used during induction to “break the ice". Ishan Gupta, managing director-India, Udacity, says there’s a reason the meeting venue has shifted from the conference room to newer places. “Millennial teams have changed the dynamics of work meetings. While many meetings happen as telecons or as video conferences, for face-to-face meetings, we find moving from conference rooms to informal set-ups works really well," he says. Gupta believes that the most important benefit of an informal meeting environment is that it breaks the ice. For the employees of 91Springboard, Goa, meetings at casual areas scattered around the office—in the café, at foosball table, or in a green breakout zone are great places to ideate too. “We may not be able to focus on work completely during action-packed football games, but we do get ideas flowing. To make final decisions, we move to other areas like say a cafe over a board game," says Pranav.

Informal meetings

The rising importance of informal meetings in workplaces is clearly being augmented by the increase in the number of millennial employees. Gupta feels activity-based meeting rooms prove very effective during meetings, especially brainstorming sessions. “The best brainstorming sessions that I have been a part of have never felt like formal meetings. Anyone is free to organize such sessions, depending on the availability of the team," he says.

Rohan Pant, 25, enrollment specialist, Udacity, says meeting up around a foosball or mini-golf table means being able to work in a more creative manner. “The best part is everyone is at par on a foosball or a golf table. One can easily cross the hierarchical structures and the conversations are more creative and free," he adds.

At RBS India, Maneesh Menda, human resources lead, operations shared service, India, says they have a weekend Friday meeting with a difference—it’s held around the pool table. “It creates a very different atmosphere from the traditional, sit-down meeting. We find that it often works well to have uncomfortable discussions around a pool table because the informal atmosphere lets people ideate and work on problem-solving as they play," he says.

Watch out

However, informal meetings can be tricky. The chances of losing sight of the agenda and getting distracted are higher than in a formal situation. According to a 2014 paper published by professors at IE Business School in Madrid in Decision Sciences, informal communications channels can come with a cost. “Manufacturing systems that use formal methods of communication, like meetings with set agendas and required participation, are more efficient and have fewer errors than those that rely on emails and phone calls," the paper says.

“The biggest challenge of an informal meet-up could be to stick to the agenda, but if the moderator is clear in his or her head it becomes easier. For instance, our bi-monthly all-hands team meetings may begin with a peppy song, but the team gets down to business after that," says Gupta.

Pant believes that the only difference is in the tonality of the conversation. “Any meeting has to have an outcome and the agenda must be fulfilled. All of us are aware of the importance of the other person’s time. Moreover, the primary objective of an informal meeting is not to just have fun but to facilitate a fun conversation," he says.

So while informal meet-ups may get the creative juices flowing and enhance ideation, most managers agree that formal meetings can’t be done away with altogether, at least not for now. No organization can ditch formal meetings, especially when sensitive discussions or external stakeholders might be involved, says Gupta.

George acquiesces, “Sometimes, there are presentations and numbers required for which everyone needs to focus on a screen and work off the subject matter there. For these kinds of meetings, formal meeting rooms are necessary."

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