With Conference Tables, Shape Matters

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We all know that subtle changes in environment can unconsciously change people's behavior. Brick and mortar businesses have long used this to their advantage by hiring design experts to create a space which will steer customers towards desired behavior. For instance, a high-end restaurant may design their space to encourage lingering, so that customers will order more food and drink while they sit. While a casual restaurant with lower prices might prefer a layout (for instance, a grid of small tables very close together) which encourages customers to eat quickly and leave, turning over the tables more frequently.

Ruth Haag's article "The Shape of the Conference Table Determines Success or Failure" applies the same principles to conference table design. Haag examines different conference table shapes and what kind of behaviors they encourage in attendees. Some of her examples:

  • Round conference tables encourage free discussion and discourage leadership. Round tables are therefore bad for an unruly group, or for a conference requiring strict organizational rules.
  • Long, thin conference tables (such as formed by stringing together several small tables) encourage cliques and discourage unity, by making it hard for the people at one end of the table to see the people at the other end.
  • U-shaped tables encourage hostility by placing attendees so far apart that they do not feel a connection with each other. The U-shape also encourages the attendees to ignore the leader because they are not looking directly at him/her.

For the highest productivity and best environment, Haag recommends that "The attendees need to be close enough that they feel they cannot say rude, threatening things to one another, but far enough away that they cannot form into unruly cliques. I propose, therefore, that the best conference table is one that is rectangular, but wide enough that those on either side cannot easily whisper to one another, about 5 feet."

We agree, though we find that while a 60" wide table is nicely spacious, a 48" width also provides enough distance across the table. We'll add one more tip: a boat shaped table can improve the conference room environment even further. The boat shape, a rectangle which is narrower at each end, has all the benefits of a rectangle plus a gentle curve which improves line of sight from the ends of the table. This makes it much easier for people seated at the far end of the table to see, and remain focused on, the conference leader.

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