Look Who's Meeting in Tahrir Square: Conference Room Names Reach for Freedom

The forced quirkiness of startup office life finally converges with Silicon Valley's self-regard.

Tilt employees sit outside of the Bastille conference room.


At Tilt, a San Francisco-based app for helping people pool money, every mundane workday meeting is organized around nothing less grand than humanity's dream for freedom. Want to get together with colleagues to discuss app upgrades, mobile marketing strategies, or the office's new hot desking arrangement? You first need to pick a meeting space named after Tiananmen Square, Tahrir Square, or another location "where collective action changed history," as Tilt Chief Executive James Beshara explains.

"Going with ABCD naming conventions, it would be very unlike us," Beshara says. "It makes a lot of sense for us to put some really significant meaning behind them." One of the early employees had an idea to name meeting rooms after locations of revolutions, and the CEO broadened the criteria to include any place where collective action happened. Among the 12 conference rooms is a space named Bastille and another dedicated to Liberty Island, where tourists collectively gaze upon a statue. It's unclear if meetings held in Robben Island, a room named after the infamous prison where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years, feel as if they drag on. 

Jazzing up otherwise banal spaces with cute names is par for the course in the modern office. There are entire QuoraYelpMetafilter, and Reddit threads dedicated to conference room names. Twitter has rooms named for birds. Square went with squares, like Lafayette. At Etsy, the conference rooms are unbearably clever puns:


Google may not have pioneered the use of oddball names for conference rooms, but the tech giant certainly helped popularize the convention (as it has done with so many startup culture staples). It goes back at least as far as Google co-founder Sergey Brin deciding to rename meeting rooms after global cities around the world, according to this 2008 Los Angeles Times account. The move was another way for Google to differentiate itself from more traditional workplaces, and it had practical benefits, too: Brin wanted employees to know where to find the rooms, so each building in the Mountain View office park takes room names from a different region in the world. Rooms with city names are organized alphabetically in each building. YouTube followed the lead of its parent company by naming its communal spaces after popular video games. 

By now, every office trying to have a modicum of workplace culture wouldn't dream of giving conference rooms bland numerals. "It never crossed my mind to not name them," Beshara says. Many companies vote on new names. Others stick to themes, some of which have to do with the business at hand and others that don't. In one of the Facebook offices, for instance, conference spaces are named after bad ideas—there's a subprime mortgage room—presumably to prevent similar blunders from happening again.

As startup culture has evolved into a parody of itself, conference room designations stopped simply telegraphing an alternative way of doing business. The playful names now aspire to meaning. "If you don't use conference room names to reinforce what is most important to you, you are wasting precious mindshare opportunity," Ekaterina Walter, a self-described global evangelist at Sprinklr, wrote last year for Inc. magazine. "Come to think of it—what other opportunities do you have to compel every employee to use these words over and over almost every day?"

Sprinklr's conference rooms are named Honesty, Passion, Perseverance, and Humility. "It would be kind of hard to be arrogant in a room named Humility, wouldn't it?" Sprinklr's founder Ragy Thomas told Walter.  

Beshara is hoping similar logic applies to his version of Tahrir Square, where Egyptian protesters confronted an authoritarian regime. "When you’re going to one of the conference rooms to meet, you have something a little bit bigger than the meeting on the mind," he says. Name your conference room for a revolution, and just maybe the regular Wednesday meeting will be revolutionary.