How to boost collaboration at work: Sit at round tables

Shape-shifting the workplace.
Shape-shifting the workplace.
Image: Reuters/Adreas Meier
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Pre-school teachers have been right all along: sitting in a circle is the best way to encourage sharing, even among 30- or 50-year old professionals.

The round table approach may work to foster collaboration for corporate boards, at workplace meetings or at restaurants, new research from two Canadian business school professors shows. By contrast, those who sit in an angular arrangement—think Donald Trump’s The Apprentice—display more maverick, self-centered attitudes.

The research is applicable to situations where communication matters, from family gatherings to restaurants and airports, according to Juliet Zhu, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business.

In the study, about 350 undergraduates were asked to sit down in one of seven chairs and evaluate advertisements and other things. Those who sat in a circle reacted favorably to ads that showed groups of friends or family members, and conveyed a sense of belonging. Those sitting in rectangular formations favored ads portraying go-getters and cutthroats.

“We find that environmental cues can activate fundamental human needs—the need to belong and the need to be unique,” the authors write. “The shape of a seating arrangement has a predictive impact on persuasion.”

The research, co-authored by a University of Alberta professor, is set to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Other research has shown the value of circles. For example, students are more engaged and may retain more information when the classroom is not set up lecture style, and instead has clusters of students at small tables or the entire class sitting in a circle.

Proximity may also help with collaboration and connectedness. When people are seated in a row, those in the center were more likely to claim their fair share credit for solving problems, while valuing the contribution of their neighbors, researchers at Northwestern University found. “People consistently appreciated their ‘neighbor’ and underappreciated those far away,” the researchers wrote. Their idea: If colleagues can see one another, they are more likely to understand and recognize each other.