an empty meeting room with table and chairs
PHOTO: Pawel Chu

The topic of digital transformation continues to vie for our attention. But at the moment I’m more interested in physical transformation. In fact, I’m interested in your furniture.

A Modest Proposal for the Workplace

I have a modest proposal that might get you in hot water with your facilities team. But the risk of any serious harm is low so here goes: take the table out of your meeting room.

We started removing tables from our meetings and some surprising things happened. The first was a piece of low hanging fruit: it got people working together on a physical task. Remember our bodies? If it’s tricky to get the table out of the room, that’s a good thing. If the table is heavy, it might take all of us to move it — also good. If it’s difficult to figure out where to put it, even better. Why? Because we are already working together on a common problem: removing the table from the meeting room. 

Once we're back in the table-less room, the first thing we might notice is there’s no place to put our personal devices. So we put them on the floor. And voila! Now you can’t prop up your laptop and gaze into your screen. I switched from the plural “we” to the singular “you” for a reason: the humans who assemble in tabled meeting rooms usually spend the allotted time gazing into their own private screen, their own personal bits of information. And we are all looking down.

When we take out the table, we spend more time looking at each other. We also spend more time looking up rather than looking down. Maybe it’s just me but I find that looking up and looking at each other is more conducive to working together than looking down at our screens. 

Perhaps we will still look down at our mobile devices, but at least that’s a bit more tricky since there’s no convenient place to set it down. And that vibrating phone that causes everyone to look down at their own phone to see if they are the one vibrating? That little distraction goes away too. A bonus.

Related Article: Are Collaboration and Productivity at Odds in the Workplace?

The Benefits of Looking Up

So now we are all in a room with nothing between us but open space. Now what? The physical barrier between us is gone. We might be sitting and we might be standing (this proposal has nothing to say about chairs). Perhaps we have a collaborative board or wall we can work on. Most meeting rooms offer something like this. Maybe it’s a pinup board or a whiteboard, or maybe it’s a digital board. Now we are looking up at whatever it is we’re there to talk about. We are not looking down at something that may (or may not) be related to the purpose for the meeting. And we are looking at the same thing. We are experiencing the same material together at the same time. Sounds almost radical to say it.

For remote workers, we go out of our way to draw them into the conversation. The simple rule is this: it’s the duty of the people inside the room to include the people outside of the room. Period. 

Here’s the most important part of the proposal on the table (so to speak): we are all now looking at the same information, the same content. We are engaged in the topic together. After all, what else is there for us to do?

Related Article: Use Employee-Driven Design to Simplify the Digital Workplace

Move Beyond Table Stakes

So what do you have to lose? I say give it a try. Take the table out of the meeting room. Look up rather than down. Experience the same material. And one more thing: ask big questions like “how do we make this amazing?” or perhaps even, “how do we change the game?”