Blog > Creating productive spaces

November 15, 2010

Beyond the Pale

Tips for better meetings

The idea is to make things simpler. So today’s tip for better meetings is simplicity itself. Get rid of the tables. All of them. Here’s why.

1. It’s too easy to set up ‘camp’ at a table

Notebook here. Pen there. Glass, coffee cup, mobile, laptop. Coat over the back of the chair. Once settled, imagine how hard it’s going to be to get that person to move all their goods and chattels? While it’s possible to ‘set up camp’ around a chair, it has a less permanent feel. And why is ‘setting up camp’ a bad thing? Because the focus is on things, not people. And if it’s one of my workshops, I’m going to ask you to move around. I’d rather you be less encumbered with physical stuff as I have enough trouble dealing with the mental stuff you’re probably also carrying around.

2. Tables get in the way

Somewhere there’s a guidebook that conference centres use. I’m sure it tells them the minimum amount of space required for a group of any size. So if you call a venue to book a room and say you have 30 people, they will squeeze your group into a room that if okay for 30 people as long as they just want to sit and do nothing but listen. These small rooms become manageable when the tables are removed. It’s then possible to use all the space, and to reconfigure the group into whatever group sizes work for the purpose of the meeting.

3. Tables get in the way II

Tables keep people apart. They get in the way of activities. They get in the way of the facilitator entering the group. They define what is the group space and what is the facilitator space. The worst sort of tables are those large round banquet tables. Even with only a few people on each table, they tend to encourage talking with your neighbour and excluding those across the table.

4. Tables have echoes of classrooms

A workshop, a training, a meeting can be stressful for all concerned. And if your memories of classrooms at school are unhappy, then even in a different setting, a different configuration – tables have echoes of classrooms and the same old defensiveness may set in.

5. Tables pre-determine the front of the room

If you have a rectangular room, the front will nearly always be at the narrow end. This is based on the assumption of a speaker and passive listeners, and fitting in the maximum number of people. This can be a problem if the room is particularly long – it’s hard to maintain eye contact and build rapport with those at the back of the room. Flip it around and have the front of the room along the long edge and everyone feels closer. Much easier to do this if there’s no tables already in place.

Common objections to removing the tables

  • Where do I put my stuff? It’s a meeting. Or it’s a workshop. It’s not business-as-usual, so leave your stuff at your desk. And if you still have stuff, how about under your chair? And if it is business-as-usual, why are you having a meeting in the first place?
  • It’s too hard to take notes Carry a small notebook and a pen, maybe one without lines, one that fits into a pocket. Anything really important – web links, reading etc – will be provided by the person organising the meeting/workshop either in advance or as a follow-up email. No need to split your attention between taking notes and participating.
  • The tables are permanent/too hard to move/there’s no-where to put the tables (and similar variations) Too easy. Find a new space. Oh, it’s where you always meet? And your meetings are becoming unproductive / boring / predictable / add your own variation here. Maybe it’s time for a change?
  • We don’t have anywhere else to meet Here’s an opportunity to practice creativity and to really see what’s available. Walk around. Where else could you meet? Could you meet standing up in the tea room? That would mean shorter meetings. Could you meet outside (weather permitting)? Is there a space on the roof? Explore the possibilities.

And when you’re comfortable meeting without tables, try getting rid of the flip charts as well. Here’s a great post explaining the benefits of not using flip charts by my friend Chris Corrigan – on the Tyranny of Flip Charts.

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