Why shape matters in conference rooms

Tables take a variety of forms. But which one works best in the boardroom?

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

A key factor in a company's success may be as simple as the shape and size of its conference table.

According to an informal study by Ruth Haag, a management consultant in Sandusky, Ohio, there is an apparent relationship between a firm's conference tables and productivity.

The best setup, she says, is a longish, rectangular table. The table should be five-feet wide, and allow about a foot of space between individuals, she says. While respecting personal space, the size promotes collegiality and prevents co-workers from whispering snide comments about one another.

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A table of medium length is also small enough to prevent cliques from siphoning off their own space. Pushing one end up against a wall prevents staff from becoming unruly and controls those who might otherwise "sit at one end and try to take over," she says.

One table shape that Ms. Haag would like to see less of: the circle.

"Why is it that people in offices always have round conference tables? Decisions don't get made around round conference tables," says Haag, who advocates that even a corner office have a small, rectangular table.

Round tables inhibit decisionmaking by stifling leadership, she says, citing a courtroom study that found a round conference table resulted in more hung juries.

While table shape is useful, there's no one-size fits-all solution to conference needs, says Mike O'Neill of Madison, Wis., director of workplace research for Knoll, Inc., a furniture design firm. Dr. O'Neill says the beginning of the Paris Peace Talks to resolve the Vietnam War (1968) were stalled for months when United States, North Vietnamese, and South Vietnamese leaders couldn't decide who should sit at the ends of a rec­tangular table. A round table flanked by two rectangular tables became the solution.

O'Neill, who is in the midst of evaluating a worldwide survey of more than 50,000 businesses people, says profitability seems to be linked to access to appropriate meeting space.

"The key thing that is a driver of increasing revenue is the ability to support collaborative work," he says, a task a variety of tables could support.

"Round is better for ongoing team and project-based work because nobody is the leader. Rectangular is better for presentational style; it serves a leadership-type function," he says.

Rapidly evolving workplaces are requiring more common space and multiple small meeting areas, says Tom Reardon, executive director of the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturer's Asso­ciation. Spontaneous meetings in these newer areas can be very lucrative – and may not even require a table. "People tend to meet informally over a cup of coffee.… Productive activity on an informal basis can be just as important as more formal meetings," he says.

Tables alone won't solve a leadership crisis, or create a collaborative working environment, O'Neill says, a sentiment with which Haag agrees. But she insists a table can help.

"This [rectangular] style fits multigenerational groups," she says. "It just helps with leadership."

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