I was thinking about tables recently, and the role they play in creating or thwarting team collaboration.

A table can...

Provide distance and separation between participants

That can be both healthy or disastrous. It’s easy to use distance and opposition (as in sitting on directly opposite sides of the table) to foster disagreement, aggression, and otherness. In different situations, distance around a table can offer space for individual reflection or a couple of people to collaborate without being drawn into something bigger.

Idea: Arrange people purposefully and keep moving them around.

Serve as a hiding place

If it is your intention, you can use a table's shapes and angles and how people fill them up to keep yourself out of view and out of the team conversation. You may use the hiding place to observe, look away, or plan what you do when you emerge from hiding.

Idea: A facilitator needs to draw people out of hiding places.

Create clutter

A too big table or too many tables in a too small room, can fill all the available space people need to move around both physically and mentally. They can eliminate any flexibility a space might offer.

Idea: Pay attention to how many table you are using and not using. Get rooms with way more square footage than you think you will need.

Establish power

Sitting at the front, sitting at the back, or sitting at a corner can, depending on who is doing the sitting, change the power dynamics for the entire group.

Idea: Use tables without corners and avoid creating a clear front of the room.

Be purely functional

It provides a place to put your arms, bang your head (or your fist), take notes, hold your drink, plug in your computer. You hope it affords an arrangement that lets you see what you need to see and is a jumping off point for people to productively collaborate.

Idea: Match the right table to what you will need it for throughout the meeting.

Team Collaboration with No Table at All

This thinking inspired something we’ll be doing soon: eliminate the tables and use only a few chairs. Provide the right amount of space to make it both inviting and slightly awkward.

We look forward to seeing what using no tables at all will do for creating or thwarting team collaboration. – Mike Brown

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