How many millions of web pages and minutes of meetings have been devoted to the question of nurturing collaboration? Many.

But perhaps, despite this endless chatter, spurring your team to work together is simpler than all this discussion suggests -- one secret of encouraging collaboration may be hiding in plain site disguised as the wisdom of kindergarten teachers. That’s what new research out of a Canadian business school suggests anyway.  

The team of professors asked volunteers to sit in chairs either arranged in a circle or a rectangle and evaluate advertisements. The placement of chairs seems like a meaningless detail, but the researchers found it affected how the subjects felt about the ads.

"Those sitting in a circle or oval reacted more favourably towards ads that conveyed a sense of belonging, showing groups of family members or friends. In contrast, participants seated in rectangular formations identified more with ads portraying go-getting individuals," explains a release outlining the findings from the Saunder School of Business.

Why the differing reactions between circle sitters and those arranged at right angles to each other? “The geometric shape of a seating arrangement can act as a subtle environmental cue for people, by priming their fundamental need for inclusiveness or individuality,” explained professor Juliet Zhu, who co-authored the study, which will soon be published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

The bottom line for business owners and bosses is that what works for five year olds also works for 50-year-olds. Seating folks Apprentice-style around a boardroom type table makes them more likely to act selfishly. Putting them in a circle where they can see the faces of their co-workers sends out subtle kumkaya vibes and encourages people to feel like they belong to a group and be less antagonistic and more collaborative

It’s an insight Zhu feels can be applied in a variety of settings, from family dinners (though no guarantees that investing in a circular table will tame that curmudgeonly uncle everyone dreads seeing at Thanksgiving) to public transit,  airports, shops and, yes, the offices of small businesses.

Is your office design hampering your team’s ability collaborate?