Room to Think: Better Meeting-Space Design Harnesses Attendee Brain Power

New ideas in meeting-space design at hotels are helping planners harness the brain power of attendees

Paul Scialla window

In September, $46 million in federal grants were awarded as part of President Barack Obama's $100-million initiative to unlock the secrets of the human brain. The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative is aimed at revolutionizing the understanding of how the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears works.

"There is this enormous mystery waiting to be unlocked, and the BRAIN Initiative will change that by giving scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action and better understand how we think and how we learn and how we remember," the president stated during the press conference unveiling the initiative. "And that knowledge could be -- will be -- transformative."

Members of the meetings and hospitality industries have been on a similar mission, experimenting with meeting environments and seeking to shed light on questions about how we learn and the best ways to present information during meetings.

These efforts have led them to find that brain-friendly meetings are held in spaces that optimize learning -- incorporating ergonomic principles and sustaining one's physical well being. Effective lighting, acoustics, ergonomics, and biophilia (the affinity of human beings for other life forms) all contribute not just to physical comfort, but also mental sharpness and productivity. Each of these elements can be leveraged ways that maximize attendees' focus and their ability to retain information. We spoke with planners, designers, scientists, and hoteliers to find out how to give a brainy boost to a meeting's design.


Lighting  
Lighting, which plays a tremendous part in a person's state of mind, is visible but often overlooked at meetings -- and that's a big mistake, says Sally Augustin, Ph.D., a practicing environmental psychologist and principal of Design With Science, a consulting group that focuses on incorporating psychology into the design of buildings and public spaces. According to Augustin, lighting is instrumental to a brain-friendly meeting. Warm white light (which she defines as between 2,700 and 3,000 degrees kelvin) is best for meeting space.

"Warm color boosts our mood and lets us get along better with others," says Augustin. "Being with other people revs up our energy level, and warm light pulls you back down. This results in a more productive meeting where everyone is in sync."

 

Getting the lighting right can be a tightrope walk. If the room is too dark, people may get sleepy; too bright and people get antsy. Not surprisingly, flickering fluorescent bulbs are not optimal for sharp thinking. Studies show that this type of light is rich in yellowish wavelengths, which produce a glare on white paper that strains the eyes. This isn't the only detriment to bright lighting, says organizational psychologist Andrea Sullivan, president of BrainStrength Systems, a learning and performance organization. "Having bright, harsh lighting results in a harsher judgment of people," she says.

Sullivan and Augustin agree that light should be brightest over the table where agendas and notes are laid out. "If the intensity of the light is increased over the work area, attendees are less likely to look away when they are working," Augustin says.

With these sorts of considerations in mind, Westin launched a project to develop guidelines for LED lighting throughout its hotels, with meeting space a focus. "We believe there is an art as well as a science to using lighting to create an ambience that's conducive to productive meetings, and activating interior spaces," says Erin Hoover, vice president of design for Westin and Sheraton. "The flexibility of LED light sources, as well as the energy efficiency, allow us to do things we couldn't with previous light sources." She adds that in the past, the brands have also looked into how the color temperature of lighting can impact people's mood and energy, including a pilot using Philips ActiViva lighting, "which has been shown to increase alertness."

Starwood displayed these new spaces at its corporate headquarters in Stamford, CT, during last month's Destination: Design, an event hosted by Westin and Le Meridien to educate planners on the role that environment plays in creating an experience.

And Starwood brands aren't the only hoteliers exploring ways to create more productive meeting environments. In August, Delos, a developer of wellness real estate, joined forces with MGM Resorts International to launch Stay Well Meetings, touted as the world's first wellness meetings experience -- in which lighting plays a key role (see sidebar).

Delos Founder Paul Scialla has incorporated light therapy into Stay Well guest rooms and meeting rooms. Dawn-simulator alarm clocks gradually awaken attendees each morning with blue-shaded wake-up lighting that is also used in Stay Well Rooms' bathroom mirrors. This specialized lighting simulates the effects of natural outdoor light, stimulating the eyes' photoreceptors and suppressing the release of melatonin, a hormone that regulates the body's sleep-wake cycle. "I use this everyday and because of my morning routine where I'm exposed to this light, I don't need coffee or any outside caffeine boosts," says Scialla.

Stay Well Meeting Rooms include circadian lighting, engineered to emulate the properties of natural light by shifting in color over the course of the day. They also have biophilic virtual window lights that bring an element of the natural environment into the rooms. Chromotherapy lighting options are in each Stay Well meeting room as well. The philosophy behind this feature is that color can alter the feel and ambiance of a room and have an effect on behavior and mood. Green light relaxes and stabilizes emotions, yellow promotes mental activity, and so on.

"Light is directly related to one's energy level, mood, and sleep cycles," says Deepak Chopra, MD, an authority in the field of mind-body healing and author of more than 80 books, including many bestsellers. "Those in turn are related to hormone cycles, blood pressure, body temperature levels, our regulation to homeostasis, and self-regulation." Chopra is a Delos advisory board member.

Keep it Simple
It is important to remember that the human brain has a limited amount of processing power. As a result, says Augustin, it is important to reduce visual clutter. "Make sure there is not too much going on in the meeting room. Visual clutter is a stressor that makes people tense and reduces brain power. There is only a certain amount of processing work one can do. If the brain is distracted by a stressor, it is not focused on the task at hand," she says.

Westin Clutter-Free Meetings helps planners and guests stay organized and productive with an open-room design/layout. Streamlined stations provide paper, pens, glasses, and water, keeping the main work area uncluttered and organized.

"If the meeting environment is crowded with people or things, our brain is working harder to register and process everything in the environment," says Sullivan. "That leads to less capacity to pay attention and hold things in our minds. It results in cognitive overload."

Using one's brain in many different ways will prevent this from happening. "Think about it. If you just work out your right arm muscle it is going to get tired," adds Sullivan. "You need to work out all different parts of your body. It's the same with your brain."


Keep it Brief
Beyond the environment, the meeting schedule itself should be taken into consideration. It's important to remember the brain needs to digest information before more can be added. Brain experts recommend a break after 1.5 hours of work to keep participants focused. The break doesn't have to be long; just 10 to 15 minutes. It should also give attendees the chance to get up and move around.

"Do something as simple as have your participants stand and shake hands with someone next to them. The key is movement. This will allow the brain to stop inputting for a while, will increase circulation, and bring blood flow to the brain which brings oxygen and allows us to think," describes Sullivan.

She also proposes incorporating some form of reconstructive learning in meetings. "If we're just receiving information, we're listening at first, but after a while we'll just stop. This type of learning consists of having people reconstruct what they just heard. This is one of the best ways to learn something."

Unfortunately, many conferences are planned by jamming in as much content as possible, under the assumption that this provides more value. "These become grueling experiences and we are tired at the end of the day instead of energized," adds Sullivan. "You are better off with fewer, more targeted, and prioritized content sessions specifically geared toward what the audience wants and needs."

Studies have shown that the average person can pay attention in a meeting for approximately 20 minutes before starting to fade, after which time, it is advisable to change the speaker or alter the format of the meeting. Breaks do more than add precious minutes to your meeting agenda. They can actually produce a more effective meeting.



This article appears in the November 2014 issue of Successful Meetings.


Questions or comments? Email [email protected]
Acoustics
Proper acoustics can make or break a meeting. If attendees are expending all their energy trying to hear, not only will you miss out on harnessing their brain power, you will mentally lose them.

"When there is noise in the background, the brain registers that," Sullivan says. "As a matter of fact, the brain registers everything. It takes some attention to suppress the noise, thus leading to reduced comprehension. Background noise also leads to an increase in off-task behaviors." Such behavior can often be disruptive to others in the meeting.

"Attention to acoustics must begin in the initial design, configuration, and material selections for the space," says Holly Meadows Baird, a registered interior designer at Tuck Hinton Architects, one of the architecture firms that designed the new Music City Center, Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, and Lipscomb University in Nashville. "Audiovisual equipment and sound systems help, but frequently cannot compensate for a poorly designed room."

Listening is the key to a brain-friendly meeting space, adds Chopra. "If a meeting has that element of deep listening with your senses, deep listening emotionally, deep listening through reflecting in the mind, and deep listening through just being, you will get a lot more out of each person."


Ergonomics
Something as simple as a chair can affect a meeting. A chair that is well designed and appropriately adjusted is an essential element of  a productive meeting. A good chair provides necessary support to the back, legs, buttocks, and arms, while reducing awkward postures.

Not just that, is has been proven that rigid chairs make clients less flexible in negotiation. "There was a study that tested how flexible or rigid people were while negotiating when they were seated in hard, straight-backed chairs versus soft chairs," says Sullivan. "It was found that those in the soft furniture were more flexible."

That is why Westin created the Performance Meeting Chair -- a comfortable, functional, and aesthetically appealing chair that has so far received an enthusiastic response from meeting participants.

 

Westin's redefinition of the traditional chair came through a collaborative partnership with the Pratt Institute of Design, a top design school based in New York City. The Westin design team worked closely with Pratt faculty and students, coordinating a multi-stage design competition. "Through this process, we identified a winning concept by [graduate student] Ashley Thorfinnson that resulted in the break-through Performance Meeting Chair," says Hoover. "From that point, Westin design worked with Ashley to develop, prototype, and test the new chair with great results." Key features of the chair are: ergonomic design, a shelf for an attendee's laptop or other personal items, and a hook on the back of the chair for jackets and bags.

This chair was developed from the perspective that guest comfort was the priority, as opposed to most chairs, which are designed to stack as high as possible.

A mixture of relaxed discussion and study areas, spaces that expand or contract depending on need, and private or group spaces should coexist in a successful meeting place. The space that supports brain-friendly meetings should include tables and seating that provide multiple layouts, a variety of wall surfaces that allow for visuals to be tacked up, and writing surfaces that support presentation and sharing.

Effective meeting space helps attendees get energized and stay energized. "If the environment supports the sensory level through the five senses, if it supports you emotionally, if the people around you are willing to listen to each other, if there is a purpose that is successfully accomplished, there is no reason why you should feel depleted at the end of the meeting," says Chopra. "It's also important the meeting have a clear outcome as we are goal seeking organisms."


Biophilia
Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, Ph.D., coined the term "biophilia" in his book of the same name, defining it as humans' innate tendency to focus on living things, as opposed to the inanimate. Biophilia has taken on added importance as studies reveal that interactions with nature result in positive gains in productivity and learning comprehension.

Not only do plants help relieve stress, they help purify the air as well. Inspired by natural elements and biophilic principles, the new design of Westin's guest rooms brings to life the brand's philosophy of preserving wellness on the road. The new "generation IV" guest rooms made their debut in select properties around the world in 2014.

Another focus is on custom-designed vertical gardens, one of Westin's efforts to transform the experience of public space. These vertical gardens are designed to improve indoor air quality as well as to create calming, more natural environments. Westin was inspired by research conducted by NASA, which revealed that growing plants indoors relieves stress while also helping to clean the air. The brand's in-house design team, led by Hoover, was also motivated by multiple studies of biophilia, which indicated that the integration of nature into design results in a range of health benefits, including enhanced mental stamina.
Center Your Attendees
Effective meeting space stimulates thinking. Getting centered is crucial. "When I conduct meetings I always start with a short meditation," says bestselling author and world-renowned speaker Deepak Chopra, MD. "It helps attendees get centered on the purpose of the meeting; to gain insight into what the intended outcome of the meeting is. What can each person contribute? Just starting with that intention will make the meeting much more powerful." An expert in the field of mind-body healing, Chopra's medical training is in internal medicine and endocrinology. "Meditation helps you stay centered and calm and opens you to your highest potential for creativity and success," Chopra explains.

He points to a study conducted by the Kyoto Convention Bureau about meditation and meetings. It found that when people meditated for at least 10 minutes before a meeting, they were much better at focusing, listening, retaining information, and completing tasks.

Meditation is the progressive quieting of thoughts, aiming to eventually clear one's mind completely. It doesn't have to be complicated or "New Agey," according to Chopra. It can be as simple as having all the attendees close their eyes and focus on their breath for a minute or two before the meeting begins.

Chopra has helped Delos and MGM Resorts International to launch Stay Well Meetings, touted as the world's first-ever wellness meetings experience. In addition to built-in wellness amenities, Stay Well Meetings offers Wellness Moment Programming, which consists of guided meditations led by Chopra, as well as a selection of short mental and physical activities designed to engage the mind. They include building towers with magnets, playing a version of tic-tac-toe, and doodling with color pens.

Acoustics
Proper acoustics can make or break a meeting. If attendees are expending all their energy trying to hear, not only will you miss out on harnessing their brain power, you will mentally lose them.

"When there is noise in the background, the brain registers that," Sullivan says. "As a matter of fact, the brain registers everything. It takes some attention to suppress the noise, thus leading to reduced comprehension. Background noise also leads to an increase in off-task behaviors." Such behavior can often be disruptive to others in the meeting.

"Attention to acoustics must begin in the initial design, configuration, and material selections for the space," says Holly Meadows Baird, a registered interior designer at Tuck Hinton Architects, one of the architecture firms that designed the new Music City Center, Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, and Lipscomb University in Nashville. "Audiovisual equipment and sound systems help, but frequently cannot compensate for a poorly designed room."

Listening is the key to a brain-friendly meeting space, adds Chopra. "If a meeting has that element of deep listening with your senses, deep listening emotionally, deep listening through reflecting in the mind, and deep listening through just being, you will get a lot more out of each person."


Ergonomics
Something as simple as a chair can affect a meeting. A chair that is well designed and appropriately adjusted is an essential element of  a productive meeting. A good chair provides necessary support to the back, legs, buttocks, and arms, while reducing awkward postures.

Not just that, is has been proven that rigid chairs make clients less flexible in negotiation. "There was a study that tested how flexible or rigid people were while negotiating when they were seated in hard, straight-backed chairs versus soft chairs," says Sullivan. "It was found that those in the soft furniture were more flexible."

That is why Westin created the Performance Meeting Chair -- a comfortable, functional, and aesthetically appealing chair that has so far received an enthusiastic response from meeting participants.

 

Something as simple as a chair can affect
a meeting, which is why Westin has created
the Performance Meeting Chair
Something as simple as a chair can affect a meeting, which is why Westin has created the Performance Meeting Chair

Westin's redefinition of the traditional chair came through a collaborative partnership with the Pratt Institute of Design, a top design school based in New York City. The Westin design team worked closely with Pratt faculty and students, coordinating a multi-stage design competition. "Through this process, we identified a winning concept by [graduate student] Ashley Thorfinnson that resulted in the break-through Performance Meeting Chair," says Hoover. "From that point, Westin design worked with Ashley to develop, prototype, and test the new chair with great results." Key features of the chair are: ergonomic design, a shelf for an attendee's laptop or other personal items, and a hook on the back of the chair for jackets and bags.

This chair was developed from the perspective that guest comfort was the priority, as opposed to most chairs, which are designed to stack as high as possible.

A mixture of relaxed discussion and study areas, spaces that expand or contract depending on need, and private or group spaces should coexist in a successful meeting place. The space that supports brain-friendly meetings should include tables and seating that provide multiple layouts, a variety of wall surfaces that allow for visuals to be tacked up, and writing surfaces that support presentation and sharing.

Effective meeting space helps attendees get energized and stay energized. "If the environment supports the sensory level through the five senses, if it supports you emotionally, if the people around you are willing to listen to each other, if there is a purpose that is successfully accomplished, there is no reason why you should feel depleted at the end of the meeting," says Chopra. "It's also important the meeting have a clear outcome as we are goal seeking organisms."


Biophilia
Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, Ph.D., coined the term "biophilia" in his book of the same name, defining it as humans' innate tendency to focus on living things, as opposed to the inanimate. Biophilia has taken on added importance as studies reveal that interactions with nature result in positive gains in productivity and learning comprehension.

Not only do plants help relieve stress, they help purify the air as well. Inspired by natural elements and biophilic principles, the new design of Westin's guest rooms brings to life the brand's philosophy of preserving wellness on the road. The new "generation IV" guest rooms made their debut in select properties around the world in 2014.

Another focus is on custom-designed vertical gardens, one of Westin's efforts to transform the experience of public space. These vertical gardens are designed to improve indoor air quality as well as to create calming, more natural environments. Westin was inspired by research conducted by NASA, which revealed that growing plants indoors relieves stress while also helping to clean the air. The brand's in-house design team, led by Hoover, was also motivated by multiple studies of biophilia, which indicated that the integration of nature into design results in a range of health benefits, including enhanced mental stamina.

Serve Brain-Friendly Food
Food is an excellent tool to help produce brain-friendly meetings.The right selections can help attendees focus, stay on task, and energized throughout the day.

Andrea Sullivan, president of BrainStrength Systems, suggests minimizing white flours and sugars at breakfast, which wreak havoc on blood-glucose levels throughout the day. Instead, provide complex carbohydrates, and low-fat and foods, with plenty of protein options.

Lunch should be light. If meeting objectives require alertness and clear thinking, stimulate the brain with a high-protein/low-carb balance. During the afternoon break, serve fruit and some protein to counteract brain drain and mental fatigue. Have lots of water stations easily accessible throughout the day, as hydration is essential for a healthy brain.

Smell is the strongest of our senses and the most effective in optimizing one's brain. The olfactory bulb is part of the brain's limbic system, connected to learning. With this in mind, Sally Augustin, Ph.D., a practicing environmental psychologist and principal of Design With Science, recommends serving food with lemon in it. "You want your people at the top of their game cognitively, and lemon is universally applicable," Augustin says. "Vigorous scientific research shows that people do better at cognitive tasks when the scent of lemon is inhaled. It can be present in the food you serve or in the hard candy you have on each table."

Keep it Simple
It is important to remember that the human brain has a limited amount of processing power. As a result, says Augustin, it is important to reduce visual clutter. "Make sure there is not too much going on in the meeting room. Visual clutter is a stressor that makes people tense and reduces brain power. There is only a certain amount of processing work one can do. If the brain is distracted by a stressor, it is not focused on the task at hand," she says.

Westin Clutter-Free Meetings helps planners and guests stay organized and productive with an open-room design/layout. Streamlined stations provide paper, pens, glasses, and water, keeping the main work area uncluttered and organized.

"If the meeting environment is crowded with people or things, our brain is working harder to register and process everything in the environment," says Sullivan. "That leads to less capacity to pay attention and hold things in our minds. It results in cognitive overload."

Using one's brain in many different ways will prevent this from happening. "Think about it. If you just work out your right arm muscle it is going to get tired," adds Sullivan. "You need to work out all different parts of your body. It's the same with your brain."


Keep it Brief
Beyond the environment, the meeting schedule itself should be taken into consideration. It's important to remember the brain needs to digest information before more can be added. Brain experts recommend a break after 1.5 hours of work to keep participants focused. The break doesn't have to be long; just 10 to 15 minutes. It should also give attendees the chance to get up and move around.

"Do something as simple as have your participants stand and shake hands with someone next to them. The key is movement. This will allow the brain to stop inputting for a while, will increase circulation, and bring blood flow to the brain which brings oxygen and allows us to think," describes Sullivan.

She also proposes incorporating some form of reconstructive learning in meetings. "If we're just receiving information, we're listening at first, but after a while we'll just stop. This type of learning consists of having people reconstruct what they just heard. This is one of the best ways to learn something."

Unfortunately, many conferences are planned by jamming in as much content as possible, under the assumption that this provides more value. "These become grueling experiences and we are tired at the end of the day instead of energized," adds Sullivan. "You are better off with fewer, more targeted, and prioritized content sessions specifically geared toward what the audience wants and needs."

Studies have shown that the average person can pay attention in a meeting for approximately 20 minutes before starting to fade, after which time, it is advisable to change the speaker or alter the format of the meeting. Breaks do more than add precious minutes to your meeting agenda. They can actually produce a more effective meeting.



This article appears in the November 2014 issue of Successful Meetings.


Questions or comments? Email [email protected]