internal visitors are booking up all our conference rooms

A reader writes:

Our team just recently relocated to a new facility which is an open office environment, and I’m looking to get some advice on visitor space (all of the visitors are internal employees who still work at our old building). We don’t have very many visitor cube spaces, so I’m running into the issue of these visitors booking out our small conference rooms. These rooms can hold up to 5 people, but each visitors books out a space for themselves leaving zero conference rooms available to the team on-site. These rooms are even being booked out when the visitor spaces are available.

How can I address this issue? I’m trying to get the team to understand that the more conference rooms are booked out, the more resources are taken away from the team on-site. Also, please note that these visitors come from a building where they all have their own offices; my team that moved out to the new building do not have theirs anymore so I think it’s unfair for one person to book a conference room to use as a workstation instead of opting to sit in the open office environment.

Another issue that we are running into is that these visitors only want to be working out of our building because it’s close to where they live, not for a business need. Again, unfair because we have a lot of people on our team who now have to commute to the new facility.

It sounds like their managers need to make it clear that they are assigned to work at the other building and need to work there unless there’s a specific business need on a particular day to be in the new building. They should explain that there isn’t enough space to regularly accommodate them in the new building, and this isn’t a “choose where you feel like working from today” situation.

Beyond that, could you require people from the old building who want to book a conference room in the new building to send those requests to a human, rather than whatever system they’re using now? That human can then find out if it’s a meeting or just a need for individual work space; if it’s the latter, she can explain that they’ll need to book a visitor cube instead or, if those are all booked, share a conference room with others who need work space (as opposed to booking a whole conference room just for themselves).

(I am resisting taking this as an opportunity to blast open offices in general, because I assume that part is outside of your control.)

{ 52 comments… read them below }

  1. PEBCAK*

    If there’s no reason for the visitors to be at their actual office space in the first place, this may be a chance for management to look at a more flexible telecommuting policy.

    1. J.B.*

      Or allowing employees to reconfigure. If teams can be mixed up between the two sites and some find one over the other more convenient, why not let them choose?

      1. Colette*

        I think sometimes people underestimate the value of having a team in one location (and the difficulty of adjusting to a multi-site team). If the team’s already spread over more than one location, adding in a second location may not be a big deal, but if it’s in one spot, the person who’s not in that office will miss out on internal discussions, which can be hinder their productivity even if they don’t directly work with their coworkers.

    2. Jerry Vandesic*

      But if they can/need to be in this building the company needs to provide them with working space. If where you work is flexible, the company should provide enough unassigned cubes/offices and/or small conference rooms. Allowing people to work across offices requires more than simply setting this as policy, the company needs to step up and provide resources to support the policy. If the company can’t provide these resources, they need to pull back on the policy and not allow employees to work where they want.

  2. PEBCAK*

    On a re-read…are the visitor cubes reservable in the same way as the conference rooms? If not, maybe they should be. It’s possible people are avoiding them just because they have to find a spot, ask if anyone is using it, etc.

    1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

      Yes – if these can be made reservable, and if you create a policy wherein if you are a single person you must either reserve a cube or agree to share a conference room with up to X people, this problem might be easily solved.

      Assuming you are using Outlook, you could require that people include in the “notes” section of the room reservation the number of people who will be using the room, and whether it is for a meeting or for desk time. Then, if it is fewer than X people, you make the hold “tentative” instead of “busy,” so others can add themselves to the room. A new room can’t be booked until the first room is full (etc.)

        1. KH*

          Experienced IT guy here. Outlook by itself can probably not do this automatically but you could have a receptionist, facilities manager or other person manually audit the reservations from time to time, and delete ones that do not meet the requirements. Together with clearly publishing guidelines, losing your reserved room once or twice should eliminate all but the most incorrigible violators.

          1. KH*

            Oh, I forgot to mention – Outlook can’t do it by itself but any reasonably large IT department could probably come up with a script to do it.
            It would still require human verification (people going around and checking who’s using the conference rooms) from time to time, as employees would pretty quickly figure out which hoops to jump through to get the booking (they’ll lie and say the room is for a meeting with 8 people, etc.)

            Also, you can limit the duration of bookings to prevent all-day squatters.

  3. Student*

    Honestly, I’d start with talking to the problem employees directly. Maybe an email missive to all regular visitors, maybe dropping into the conference room directly when you see it being mis-used. Maybe call a meeting with the known offenders. Then lay down the law: “This is a conference room, not a visitor office. You’re taking up a valuable resource that other people need more than you do.”

    1. Sadsack*

      Yeah, I think this is where I’d start. Also, maybe out up signs indicating that the conference rooms are for meetings and not for individual workspace. Get someone in management to sign off on this first, in case there are objections and questions about authority. Then monitor the scheduling of these rooms. Where I work, an admin has to accept or decline an Outlook meeting notice for a conference room. That person can note who is requesting the room and ask for details, as someone else here suggested. If the meeting organizer is just booking the room for work, the admin has the power to decline the invitation for the room.

        1. Sadsack*

          That may be the more simple solution! As long as it is only your team who is in the area needing to use the rooms, and there are no conflicts between meeting groups within the team.

    2. cat food lion paw*

      I like this idea. AAM had a column a few weeks ago where the conclusion was, basically: if some people are behaving badly, try to cure it with some policy that applies to everyone. Instead, target the people who are behaving badly.

      I think it is an idea whose time has come. And I’m sure I’m not alone, because I’ve recently seen other people here on AAM make a case for this kind of solution at least 2 or 3 times.

      With any luck, Alison, you’ve started what Arlo Guthrie would call “a movement”.

    3. Sunshine Brite*

      This! I work in an open environment and from orientation on they encourage people to use the smallest space if you’re only popping in for an hour or two, a bigger workspace if you’re there all day, areas for calling vs not, small meeting spaces for 2-3 and conference rooms. Then book accordingly, if at all.

      1. Jerry Vandesic*

        If the smallest space available is a conference room, the employee is doing the best they can. If the company wants to fix this problem, they should create a block of open cubes for visitors.

    4. Jerry Vandesic*

      There are no “problem employees” here. The problem is with the company that is not providing enough resources to support their policy of flexible working arrangements. The employee is trying to do their job given the constraints their employer has created. More flexible space is required, or the flexible work policy needs to be pulled back.

  4. Engineer Girl*

    You need to change the rules so that conference rooms can only be used for meetings.
    At my old project we had to provide meeting purpose and contact info when we scheduled. This kept people from scheduling the rooms all to themselves.

    1. The IT Manager*

      This! Create a policy that makes sense (an obvious rule it that conference rooms cannot be booked for a single person or cannot be booked by a single external employee since some of your team members may need to room to take private calls), announce the policy, then enforce the policy.

      If space is at a premium at your location then another sensible policy is that external people need a valid reason to book a conference room or visitor desk at your location.

    2. Elysian*

      At my law school you needed at least two peoples’ email addresses to reserve a “group study” room – implemented when people started reserving the group rooms so they could have a (even) quieter (seriously, law school libraries are already pretty quiet) place to study. I don’t know if the OP’s office has meetings with external clients or anything, but if the meeting rooms are needed for internal meetings, maybe requiring more than one email address to book would be a potential solution.

  5. Dasha*

    Alison, not to be nitpicky but may I suggest one small change?

    ” That human can then find out if it’s a meeting or just a need for individual work space; if it’s the latter, she* can explain that they’ll need to book a visitor cube instead or, if those are all booked, share a conference room with others who need work space (as opposed to booking a whole conference room just for themselves).”

    He or she* :)

    1. Student*

      Alison has a blanket policy of using “she” for all unspecified gender situations. So, default gender assumption is “she” for the anonymous manager and for the anonymous administrative assistant.

    2. CA Admin*

      Alison has mentioned before that when gender isn’t made explicit, she’ll deliberately pick the female pronoun. It’s less messy than “he or she” and is a nice counter to the typical male pronoun default.

  6. LBK*

    How often do these people have a legitimate need for a conference room in your building? Any chance you can just systematically block them out from reserving one? I’m only authorized by our system to book certain rooms in our building (can’t book most of the fancy executive ones, mostly).

    Could you also maybe designate one conference room as a commuter office, if for whatever reason they just prefer sitting at a big table in a room than at a cubicle desk? This would be one for everyone who wants to use a conference room to share.

    Mostly, though, it sounds like your company really needs to clarify what the expectations are around flexible working. I agree with commentors above that it sounds unbalanced if your team is being forced to work in the new location but these people can go wherever they please, although obviously the nature of the work of each team might merit different arrangements.

    1. Artemesia*

      This. If the visitor cubes are full that means too many people are choosing to visit unless they have been assigned to be at that site. Step one should be not allowing people to work in the new space unless they are assigned there for a particular reason which involves working with other team members. And this would include specifically telling the offenders that this is creating a hardship, that conference rooms may not be booked for individual work and they can only be on site for meetings or work with other team members.

      And conference rooms might be made non bookable by those not assigned to the site. This would mean if there is an overflow that the admin would need to specifically locate overflow space which might mean assigning ONE conference room that day for all extra visitors.

      This ought to be rather easy to manage if anyone is managing space. If not someone needs to have that authority.

  7. Meg Murry*

    Are the people booking conference rooms instead of visitor cubes doing so because they need to take a lot of phone calls or have part of their day with small (1-2 people) meetings and its just easier to book the conference room for the whole day rather than the visitor cube for the day and the conference room for an hour?

    If you are booking conference rooms electronically, is there a way to make it so that only people at your location can book them electronically, and the visitors have to go through a human (or have the person they are visiting do the booking if they are coming for a valid meeting)? Alternately, could you chop up one of the conference rooms or wall off one section of the cubicles into little offices with just a desk and phone so if the reason people are booking conference rooms is for collaborative 2 person work or to take conference calls there are smaller spaces available for this? One place I worked was dramatically running out of conference room space, so they converted several offices into basically study carrells with a phone and soundproofing so people could take conference calls in peace.

    I like Alison’s suggestion to make them first book a visitor cube, and if that doesn’t work have them share the conference room. Do you (or someone in the building) have the authority to pull rank on the conference room schedulers? If so, you could block off one of the rooms for hotdesking, and then have someone go through the room scheduling and notify anyone that has booked a conference room solo “I’m sorry, we are running out of space for conference rooms and we need the one you booked for [legitimate meeting, because we need the speakerphone, etc]. Please let me know who you will be meeting with, and if you do not have a need for a private room we will move you to [hotdesking conference room].”

    Kick people out a few times and maybe they will be less likely to work from your conference rooms. If you don’t have the option of kicking people out, the only other recourse I could see would be to block off a few conference rooms for 1-2 hours a day for [your team] meetings, so they aren’t available for visitors to book up – but that would a passive aggressive, last ditch approach – although it does make sense for meetings that are currently held monthly or weekly to put on the calendar now for weeks in advance so you aren’t having to scramble for space.

  8. Snarkus Aurelius*

    When I was working at my very first job, one of my tasks was to collate 50+ binders.  VPs had offices with a door; everyone else had cubes.  I didn’t have enough space to complete this task, and the conference room was off-limits because of meetings. (Surprise!)

    I found an empty office to use for a couple of hours, and it ended up being the worst decision ever.

    At least six people passed by that office and complained to me that they were in line for one.  The conversation when something like this:

    Accounting Woman: But, I told Bob that I needed my OWN office because I do payroll stuff, and he said that single offices were VPs only!  I…I just can’t believe this.

    Me: I’m just using this office temporarily to collate.  That’s it.

    AW: But this is inappropriate.  You just started working here this year!  I do payroll, and I need my own office.

    Me: I understand that, but this is not permanent for me.  I need the space just for the afternoon.

    AW: Well so do I, but apparently you’re allowed to have it, and I’m not even though I do payroll!

    I got so frustrated that I shut the door.  Then the VP of Human Resources stopped by to ask me what was going on.

    No one ever said I couldn’t use the spare office.  I just went back to my regular cube, which meant there were piles of paper everywhere, and people couldn’t get by.

    I’m convinced that people who are THAT sensitive about private offices do not have enough work to do.

    1. PEBCAK*

      I had the same issue! I was once dealing with a recall that meant laying out a ton of parts on the floor, and having an aisle cubicle, that meant blocking a ton of people. I did it in an empty office, and no less than the COO of the company came in and freaked out, demanding to know who I reported to.

    2. LMW*

      At my old job, a colleague moved to another department and her office was open. My boss decided to hire someone under me with the intention that I’d move into the departed colleague’s office with a promotion (you had to be at least assistant editor to get an office, and I was still editorial associate in title, even though I was responsible for a line of books), and the new person would take over my current role. Unfortunately, my boss had to wait 5 weeks before she could promote me because of some stupid rule about a minimum of 6 months between promotions (and she’d had to do the interim promotion just to make me eligible for the editor-level promotion). So I ended up 1) being told I could have the office, 2) moving into the office the next week and releasing my cube to the new person, 3) Being told in an awkward conversation between me, my boss and the facility manager that I couldn’t have the office, 4) Having to move into a cubicle currently occupied by someone else and share a clearly-designed-for-one-person space, 5) Getting promoted two weeks after I moved back, 6) Moving back into the office I was told to vacate.
      It was so ridiculously awkward. And I’m partially convinced that giving me that office early was a note in my poor boss’s file when she got fired a few months later.

  9. cv*

    OP, I was struck by the fact that there’s no mention of the hierarchy or power structure, or even your role, in your letter – are you the team lead, or a member of the team, or an admin responsible for arranging meetings that need conference rooms? Depending on the culture of the company, this may be best addressed by figuring out who has the power to make a rule/tell the visiting team members to cut it out, and working through that person to handle the problem. It might be a higher-level manager in your location, an office manager, the team’s manager in their home office, or a facilities person. It sounds like you don’t have the authority to make or enforce rules about the space or even necessarily to approach the visitors directly about the problem, but that authority exists somewhere.

    Alternatively, if your culture is pretty collaborative, just have a conversation with each of the visitors about it. Or when you go to book a room and everything is full, send people emails explaining that you need the space for on-site meetings at such-and-such time and ask if they could use the visitor cubes during that time.

  10. Beezus*

    We use Outlook to book conference room resources, and access to book conference rooms is usually (somehow?) restricted to people who actually work at the site in question. If I’m traveling to another office to host a meeting, I’ll either reach out to my closest counterpart there or an appropriate admin there to book a conference room for the meeting. If I try to book it myself, I get an error message saying that I don’t have the right permissions. Your resource scheduling tools might be able to be similarly restricted.

  11. ilovejoshlyman*

    When I first started at a foreign university as a lecturer, there were strict rules about who could what kind of offices (there were designations of each office, mostly by size but also location). No one shared offices, but large ones went to Chair Professors and everyone else had smaller ones. But, because I was foreign and the country is very difficult to navigate as a foreigner (and I spoke almost zero of the language), my boss – a Chair Professor – put myself and his other lecturer in a single office that was designated for a Chair Professor, but was not used by anyone. The reactions by most of the staff was hilarious – some people flipped out that two lecturers had a big office (even though, it wasn’t anywhere near double the size of a single office, so technically we had less space individually) but also that we were sharing. We both LOVED it. But there was SO MUCH concern trolling about us sharing an office. Eventually, it had to be discussed at a department wide meeting.

    The country is very, very particular about hierarchy and what is ‘deserved’ based on rank. But, in this case it was my boss trying to create a situation where I had someone to help me navigate. The other person was totally fine with it, and actually preferred to share an office because it was less lonely. I thought it was a really kind gesture on behalf of my supervisor.

    TLDR: People are so weird about offices and space.

      1. Kfish*

        Argh, hit return too early! I meant to agree with you, people get really territorial (literally!) about office size.

  12. Come On Eileen*

    My company has several buildings on campus, and the newest building has an open office structure that I was initially skeptical of but have honestly grown to love. I have my own cube in one of the older buildings, but I regularly take my laptop to the new building and camp out for a few hours because the open structure was designed with a ton of small conversation spaces and other work spaces that can’t be reserved but anyone can walk up and sit in. We’ve got couches, hanging chairs, booths with white boards for tables, etc. Its actually quite awesome and I love that I feel like I’m escaping my cube to get work done, but hey, I’m still at work and just lounging on a couch.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      Someone put these couches and a big squishy chair on our floor. Apparently, they were in a room that had been appropriated for something else. They just mysteriously appeared one day. Nobody ever sits on them–I don’t know if it’s because they can’t get away from their phones, or they’re afraid people will think they’re not working! The chair is over by the (world’s slowest) elevator, and I sometimes sit in it when waiting. I keep telling people I’m going to steal it and put it in my cube. :)

  13. Annalee*

    We had this problem at our office. We’ve got an open floor plan and six very small quiet rooms (which can comfortably seat three people). We folks (often visitors) using the quiet rooms as workspaces, which meant that when someone needed to take a phone call or a 20-minute meeting, they were out of luck (it also made the open floor plan louder, because people were taking calls and meetings there). Much gnashing of teeth ensued.

    We discussed it internally and debated all kinds of schemes to fix it, but what’s worked is this: when people are camping the conference rooms and we need them for their intended purpose, we politely ask them to move.

    In our case, there are already signs in the rooms stating that they’re not to be used as workstations, so that plus an apologetic “excuse me–are you taking a call? We really need the room” is enough to fix it without causing a dramafest (and over time has trained folks to not camp the rooms). So you may need signage or a clear directive from management to lay the groundwork for the polite “shoo” to work.

    1. Evergreen*

      Yes, I agree, this is how I’d handle it.

      If the signs are not ‘management sanctioned’ put up your own signs (with company logo) and then if you need the room and no alternatives are available, just politely ask them to move and point to the sign.

      Most conference room interlopers will conclude conference room for 1 is Not The Way Things Are Done Here and leave. And any arguments you can rightfully escalate to your boss, theirs, or facility management for a longer term solution as AAM originally suggests.

  14. Green*

    We’ve recently moved to open office space, and we do have a few quiet rooms that people can work in. However, the sign up sheet only lets you reserve them for a maximum of 2 hours.

    I hate open office arrangements, but this allows people to have small meetings, work on something that requires extra concentration, have teleconferences or webexes, or just get some privacy. I’d consider a 2 hour max policy for everyone so that nobody (visitors or not!) can monopolize the private quiet rooms all day.

  15. anonymous daisy*

    I work in an academic library and we have a scheduler that only allows students to book a group study room for two hour increments. We tell the students that if they want it longer, they need to have another student in their group to reserve the room right after them. The system will allow you to reserve a room up to two weeks in advance and humans (supervisors) can override the system for special requests such as special all day events or a needed weekly semester long standing reservation. The system usually works well but fights break out when someone is late in getting to their reservation and people just went in thinking it had been abandoned. We yield to the person who has it reserved but the ones who are asked to leave just move over to the reference desk to register their anger with us.

  16. Brett*

    We have this exact same situation right now. We have a nice new building in a different part of the county, and other divisions are taking advantage of this by sending people here to work.

    Our problem stems from two issues. First, we are essentially tenants of the building; a different division runs it and as long as people stay out of their space, that division does not care what happens to our space. Second, the managers of the squatters (yeah, we call them squatters, as at least four of them have been working here every day for over six months) have no motivation to make any change. Having their employees work here means more space for them in their regular buildings, as well as giving their employees newly built space with better amenities.

    That is why, unfortunately, I don’t think the solutions above will work. For the first one, the managers of the other employees have no incentive to issue those directives. By allowing their team to spread out, they are increasing their own work space and their access to the new facility. For the second solution, if there are not already policies in place to prevent this space squatting, then a formal booking policy through a human is not going to work either. Somewhere there is a unit of the organization who makes the decisions on how spaces are managed. That unit is going to have to be the ones who put their foot down and force the changes. If they have no interest in that (like in our current situation), policy is not the answer.

    Instead, like several people here have suggested, you just have to directly talk to the people abusing the policies. Let them know the impacts and request that they correct the situation. If they refuse, all you can do is keep moving up the line of management until you either find someone who supports you and has authority over them, or you run out of managers.

    1. Brett*

      (Incidentally, we ran out of managers. That’s why we have people that have worked here every day for six months. It has been a de facto reassignment.)

  17. HRish Dude*

    Conference room management is a nightmare. You’re lucky they’re booking them at all.

    The worst is when someone claims that you “lost” their reservation or suddenly needs a room for 20 people becuase they forgot to book one…I’m sorry, but despite your protestations to the contrary, Outlook doesn’t “randomly delete” things.

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