When setting up a conference, there is often little to no attention paid to the space we are actually meeting in. After all, a serviceable conference room is simply a quiet space made up of a large table and enough seats, right?
What is the issue that plagues the traditional conference room?
Ed Catmull, the current CEO and president of Pixar, sheds light upon this issue with a story from his autobiography, Creativity, Inc. For Catmull, the biggest eyesore in the conference room for many years had been a pesky table:
For thirteen years we had a table in the large conference room at Pixar. 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.
It is evident that throughout the past century, the intimidatingly long tables found in conference rooms have become a staple in corporate culture. Even today, typing “conference room” into Google’s image search yields dozens of pictures of absurdly long tables populated by two rows of office chairs on the sides and two sitting on each end.
So what makes these kinds of tables so harmful to sharing ideas with your colleagues? Catmull describes in Creativity, Inc. how the conventional formation around the table hindered their meetings.
We’d hold regular meetings about our movies around that table — thirty of us facing off in two long lines, often with more people seated along the walls — and everyone was so spread out that it was difficult to communicate.Catmull Ed
With this kind of layout, the flow of ideas is disturbed by distance, especially for people who are sitting on the far edges of the table, often having to uncomfortably crane their necks to make eye contact with people sitting on the opposite side.
It can also create a strong feeling of hierarchy within the room, with the most important figures often sitting on the end of the table, and the people perceived as “less imporant” placed further and further away from the conversation, which make them hesitant to speak up and join the conversation.
What should a modern conference room look like?
If your goal is to inhibit creativity and fresh ideas from every single person inside the conference room, there is one simple, but fundamental change that has to be made: show the old and faithful rectangular table the door, and introduce a smaller, round or square-shaped table in its place.
This introduces a kind of social symmetry into the room, creating a “sociopetal” workspace, a term coined by psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond. The term signifies that the energy from each person sitting in the room will be focused inward, towards the centre of the table.
In practice, this means that the grid system and the so-called “power seats” are gone, and regardless of people’s job titles or where they find themselves behind the table, they are sitting next to each other like the Knights of the Round Table, creating an atmosphere where every idea seems equally worthy of expressing.
Sitting around that table, the interplay was better, the exchange of ideas more free-flowing, the eye contact automatic. Every person there, no matter their job title, felt free to speak up. This was not only what we wanted, it was a fundamental Pixar belief: Unhindered communication was key, no matter what your position.Ed Catmull
Who is pushing the envelope?
As old habits always die hard, the first few are already pioneering the new paradigm of conference rooms. One such pioneer is SilenSpace, an Estonian company that creates spaces for efficient, silent and modernized meetings. They do this by building modular meeting pods that can be integrated into an office space and as the name suggests, are completely soundproof.
The pods come in different shapes and sizes, but the psychology behind the modern conference room prevails. They are cozy and intimate in place of gridded and hierarchical, they boost workflow and creativity by encourage people to step inside, take a seat around the table and express themselves eye-to-eye.
Thinking differently about where and how we arrange our meetings has the power to unlock more creativity, encourage more new ideas and, most importantly: get more work done.