Posted October 8, 2010 by Seth Hagler 

Change the Room, Change the Culture: Room Set-Up as a Function of Community Building

Think about one of the most difficult parts of running a union. Student workers hate it. You hate it. Everyone complains about it. But what if you could translate this arduous, menial task into an asset for your meetings and those of the groups using your facilities?

That’s right, we’re talking about room setups.

Too often, it’s just part of the job. There’s lecture-style, conference, small group—which are, for the most part, enough to do what needs to be done. However, if one were to think critically about how the room would be used and how the work done by the building staff could impact those meetings, new possibilities become evident.

In his 2008 book, "Community: The Structure of Belonging," Peter Block challenges the reader to think about moving the meeting from a typical lecture or presentation and to bring it to life. His goals of creating inclusion and belonging are made manifest in talking about how rooms and the way they are arranged can affect gatherings. Some factors to consider include: 

  • When chairs are being placed, instead of using the prescribed traditional setup, take a second and think about the point of the meeting and how the arrangement of the room can influence that. 
  • /uploadedImages/_PUBLISHED_CONTENT/Publications/The_Commons/chairs1.jpg Can the presenter be stationed at the center of the room instead of on a stage? Block makes the assertion that "When we watch the stage together, we have once again turned our backs on each other" (p. 156).
  • In a conference setup, can participants only see those on the other side of the table, or is the table large enough and put together in such a way that all people are visible? 
  • What elements exist that give the room a feeling of "alive-ness?" Are there plants in the room, or art on the walls? 
  • Most importantly, encourage student employees and professional staff to use creativity while still meeting the needs of building users. All the vision in the world is for naught if there an inadequate number of seats for all attending or if a presenter is lacking necessary equipment.

One criticism of this idea, however, is that it requires significantly more thought and effort on the part of the staff—resources that are often prioritized for other tasks. Additionally, groups are looking for maximum efficiency of the space to get as many chairs or tables in a room as possible. However, these factors do not have to limit the intentionality and thoughtfulness of the setup.

Too often, when we think of this task, "You just get tired of lugging chairs around the room. But this is work that has to be done…the task is to rearrange the room to meet our intention to build relatedness, accountability, and commitment" (p. 153). By taking these thoughts into consideration, room setup can move from an annoyance to an asset.

What strategies do you use in your college union to build community through room setups?

Seth Hagler

Seth Hagler is the Graduate Assistant for Student Campus Events at Vanderbilt University.

Seth is a second-year graduate student studying higher education administration. He enjoys reading, eating, and sports, especially the Tampa Bay Rays and SEC Football. Seth is currently excited about his upcoming job search but is certain that excitement will wear off very quickly.


Great article, Seth. It is a challenge to get those setting up a space to be creative and think "outside the box" and it can also be a challenge if it would mean fewer seats for meeting room. Thanks for sharing your insights from Block's book.
Comment posted 10/15/2010 10:12 AM
Seth- We have a great team of about 20 students who tackle scores of room setups each day. They function as a team, are mostly peer led and take responsibility for much the work loading, billing, and inventory process. The success of our production staff, in my eyes, is primarily a factor of the team approach - they only work in groups, they are led by a peer crew lead (captain) and have clear goals and incentives for accomplishing said goals. I really appreciate the ideas you advance here and plan to track down a copy of this book ASAP.
Frank Michael Muñoz
Comment posted 10/18/2010 8:02 PM
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