How the Shape of Your Conference Table Can Influence the Outcome of Your Meeting
Most of us assume that it's the people in attendance at a meeting that can make or break the productivity of the group, when in fact, the shape of your conference table can have a profound psychological effect on the tone, morale and even the outcome of the meeting.
The table is the center-piece or nucleus of the group and carries important significance in your meeting. For instance, when you are leading an unruly group (this happens often in legal offices) you need to make sure and maintain control of the group.
Modern curves with no 'foot of the table' position
A modern or custom designed conference table can create a power position at the head of the table, and no seat at the foot of the table. The "yin & yang" energy of opposition is not present here. If you don't have a modern table with this configuration, consider pushing the table up against a wall on the foot of the table end so that no opposition seat is available.
Round tables for collaboration, not hierarchy
A round table symbolizes equality and collaboration, and is best suited for team-building meetings, working together on a common goal, and creating a sense of intimacy between people.
King Arthur's table was created specifically to signify that all the knights seated at the table were equal, and everyone's opinion was valued. This can also mean that it may be harder to come to a clear decision, since no leader is apparent.
Students in law school are often told about a jury room which had a round table installed for a short period of time. During this time there were more hung juries than ever before. When the round table was replaced with a more traditional rectangular shaped table the juries using the room began to reach more verdicts.
A long thin table creates 'communication zones'
If you've ever attended a banquet dinner with long thin tables you've probably experienced this phenomena; People at one end of the table are discussing one topic, while the people at the other end are in conversation about something completely different, while those seated in the middle are in limbo, not knowing which conversation to join.
Often times people in meetings tend to sit close to others that they are comfortable with. When they sit too far from the head of the table (where the action is) it can cause distraction, or the dreaded 'head in the clouds' effect. Many times you'll see people sitting in the limbo area reading emails on their blackberries and not really paying attention to whats happening in the meeting.
Communication is difficult when you're too far apart
If you are creating a room for divorce attorneys to argue settlements or where opposing sides dislike one another, a table with a large gap in the center would be a perfect table. In any other sort of conference room, the deep division and wide gap will create a sense of separation and a 'us against you' feeling at the table. In this room, the attendees will be looking straight at one-another, instead of at the leader of the meeting. I would also suggest extra sound buffering in this space, since there may be louder voices and fighting here.
The common solution
I suggest that the best table for most conference rooms would be a rectangular shaped table with rounded corners (sometimes called a boat-shaped table.) The rounded corners inherently feel better than jutting points, and save meeting guests from ever feeling they are sitting close to the 'edge' (which may happen when you have more people at the meeting than normal, and you have moved the chairs closer together.)
An important feature to consider
Make sure everyone in attendance is comfortable. That means checking to make sure that the legs of the table are placed at a comfortable distance from attendees knees, the chairs are comfortable for all heights (and weights) and there is adequate lighting at the table to accomplish the tasks at hand.
Tamara Romeo, owner of San Diego Office Design, specializes in creating a sense of comfort and ease in office design, and uses Environmental Psychology to create meeting spaces that 'work' for her clients.