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The Circle Game

Interior designers have long believed that a properly arranged office can abet collaboration. Now some academic research is backing them up, and the result is something any organization can implement.
Workplace seating arrangements
photo by Ofer El-Hashahar

Can the interior design of an office improve teamwork? A preponderance of designers and organizations say “yes.” We’ve written about Google’s work spaces, and Fast Company recently interviewed designer Denise Cherry about “how to shake up the cubicle farm.”

But few academic studies had made any connection between furniture’s configurations and employee collaboration — until earlier this month, when Rui (Juliet) Zhu and Jennifer Argo published a research paper on the impact of office seating arrangements in the Journal of Consumer Research.

“When seated in a circular-shaped layout, individuals evaluate persuasive material more favorably when it contains family-oriented cues or majority endorsement information. In contrast, when seated in an angular-shaped seating arrangement, individuals evaluate persuasive material more favorably when it contains self-oriented cues or minority endorsement,” notes the abstract.

In plain English, this means you’re more likely to think like a consensus-seeking teammate when you sit facing your colleagues in something like a circle, and you’re more likely to think like a me-first individual or devil’s advocate when you sit in a square or rectangular arrangement.

Of course, consensus is not always the goal, and artificial harmony can hurt everyone. But in situations where you’re trying to foster team chemistry and a sense of all-for-one, these findings demonstrate that “a subtle environmental cue — the shape of a seating arrangement — can activate fundamental human needs and consequently affect persuasion,” the research abstract says.

If you’re looking for a real-world example to bolster the research, we’ve got one: In her book, The Silent Language of Leaders, Carol Kinsey Goman shares what Sujit Patil, former head of corporate communications at Tata Chemicals, discovered.

“We experimented with a unique process during the integration meeting after one of our early M&As where seating arrangement during employee integration made a positive difference,” Patil tells Goman. “We arranged chairs in concentric circles, rather than in a theater style or around a conference table that might have made one group seem dominant. This very subtle nonverbal communication was very powerful and ensured a feeling of equality among the managers from both the organizations. The participation level was much higher.”

What’s especially appealing about this example is that it cost nothing. All Tata Chemicals did was rearrange the chairs — just to see what would happen. That’s something any organization could try.

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THE PLUS

A 2010 academic study by Brian Gunia and Brice Corgnet, which appeared in Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, also explored the relationship between seating arrangements and group dynamics. “Because disagreements about contributions often lead to group conflict, the research shows that different seating plans can improve the overall functioning of a group,” notes a summary of the paper on the website of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, where Gunia earned his Ph.D. “In particular, it suggests that helping group members to see one another can also help them see ‘eye-to-eye.’”

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