A Better Conference Table

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For thirteen years we had a table in the large conference room. . . . Though it was beautiful, I grew to hate this table. It was long and skinny, like one of those things you’d see in a comedy sketch about an old wealthy couple that sits down for dinner — one person at either end, a candelabra in the middle — and has to shout to make conversation. — Ed Catmull, Creativity Inc.

You enter the conference room — a long, somewhat narrow space, windows on one side, maybe a wet bar at one end, and a gaggle of managers milling around or taking seats. The CEO walks in, followed by an assistant; they sit at one end of the table. Often someone does a presentation; then it’s questions and comments.

But every time anyone other than the boss has something to say, attendees on that side of the table must crane around each other to see better. Mostly, they give up and merely listen. But they don’t get to see the face and see the person’s certainty or hesitation or smirk or confusion. And the speaker can’t see most of the attendee’s reactions. Communication is reduced to the quality of a phone call — voice only. Many times a screen is put to use, and again everyone cranes around each other to watch.

Is there any way to fix all this? Yes. But first we must think about shapes.

The rectangle creates sight-line problems:

Attendees can’t see each other. This makes conversation harder and reduces the flow of ideas.

A circular table creates ideal sight lines, but it’s an awkward fit in a long, narrow conference room. And it’s less clear who’s in charge of the meeting.

A long, oval table, on the other hand, solves both problems neatly:

Now everyone can see everyone. Conversations flow smoothly. And the leader is still at one end, overseeing the meeting. Here’s an example.

What about media? Here are three strong options:

1. Screen at far end of table:

This is the cheapest approach, easiest to set up, and easiest to move around. Note that attendees at the screen-end of the table slide back a bit so people behind them can see without craning. 

A more expensive option is an oval table with a flat edge at the screen end.

2. Screens installed above and behind long sides of table:

Each attendee can view the screen opposite without anyone moving. (The chief can watch either screen.) More expensive, less flexible during a minor room remodel.

3. Tabletop central monitors facing outward:

Like those sit-down conferences on the Starship Enterprise, the screens project outward from the table’s center; attendees view the nearest convenient screen. It’s more expensive but also more involving, as participants can interact with each other while viewing.

4. Screens built into table surface: The future is here now, if you’re willing pay extra:

%22a better conference table%22 future table[courtesy tactable.com]

…Bear in mind that politics can be dicey in any organization, and conference leaders may feel the need to squelch discussion. In that case, they’ll likely prefer rectangular tables, which constrain attendees to focus on the leaders. But if the aim is creative problem solving (and damn the political torpedoes), an oval shape will encourage more lively discussions.

For a wide selection of table designs, simply Google “oval conference table”, click on images that appeal to you, and visit the various retailers.

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Published by

Jim Hull

Jim Hull graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in philosophy, then spent ten years as a lecture-demonstrator in the performing arts, including tours and TV appearances. More recently, Jim has produced research, copywriting, and editing for numerous clients. He also has published two books: the set of essays ARE HUMANS OBSOLETE? and a novel, THE VAMPIRE IN FREE FALL. Jim teaches classes in current events and music at The Braille Institute in Los Angeles. He applies his unique perspective to create surprising, compelling solutions to difficult problems. Jim thinks the world would work better if people spent less time dominating each other and more time working alongside those with different viewpoints to resolve the challenges we all face. CONTACT JIM: jimhull@jimhull.com ...

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