Over the last three years, we've seen more coworking offices pop up across the globe. The number of coworking members surpass half a million. So why do individuals love coworking spaces so much? Reduced overhead and paid-for amenities are nice, but research shows that community and a sense of belonging are among the strongest motivations. A global study revealed that almost 80% of members happily work in a large open-office plan, while 70% state they prefer connection over anonymity in their space.

This same emphasis on fostering connections and a relationship-based company culture has been adopted by more private companies, causing management to completely rethink the way employees socialize in an open office design.

The result? Enter the large communal table. In an attempt to bring employees closer together, offices are ditching private desks and two-seater lounge tables in favor of one large group seating area.

The communal table takes many forms. For example, advertising agency Barbarian Group employed architect Clive Wilkinson to redesign its NYC offices. Wilkinson created a 1,100-foot-long 'table' that forms a productivity ribbon throughout their 23,000-square-foot office. Everyone works at this table, including the agency's chairman.

"The lesson of it was cohesion in the community and about people connecting as well as they could ever connect," Wilkinson told The New York Times. "It was about flexibility: you could expand or contract your business."

Williams Craig, a multidisciplinary design studio that serves corporate, hospitality and retail clients, designed and handcrafted their own giant table using wood from two sources and measuring the table for their particular space.

Uber's offices in San Francisco boast a large communal table at the center of its "populist luxury" lounge, and Pinkeye Crossover Design Studios in Antwerp focused on an elongated office table in its studio design. Their community table "houses eighteen monitors, mice, graphic pads and keyboards for as many creative heads."

The office furniture piece is also used simply to encourage a meal break. Architectural firm Snøhetta got rid of its reception area and small entry rooms and replaced the space with a long lunch table design that's impossible for visitors and employees to ignore. Elaine Molinar, partner at Snøhetta, told Metropolis, "I think the less prescribed a space, the easier it is to think creatively."

Is a communal table right for your office? Consider the benefits and challenges while reflecting on your company culture.

Benefits

You can grow employee relationships and foster a sense of belonging.

Whether the table design falls closer on the spectrum to Wilkinson's extreme ribbon model or is simply an exercise in encouraging employees to eat lunch, there's no doubt workplace colleagues will communicate and bond more if the office environment encourages them to do so.

You can dissolve the need for conference room exclusivity.

A communal table could possibly decrease the need of constantly booking a conference room if used as an alternative 'breakout' space. It also can bring back the tradition of a "kickoff" morning meeting with your entire company, which jumpstarts momentum for the work day.

You can increase productivity across departments.

Utilizing a communal desk space as a collaborative venture between departments can result in quicker communication, faster issue resolution, and impromptu brainstorming and problem solving.

Challenges

You must consider privacy, security, and interruptions.

For industries where privacy and security protocol are top priority, a communal table--especially in a high traffic area such as a main open office--is not recommended. Consider a modular workstation layout instead where dividers add privacy and reduce distractions.

You risk a turnover from talented, introverted employees.

Office design is a continual search for balance to meet the needs of all your employees. While a communal table can be a healthy way to socialize more often, consider whether the social makeup of your workforce leans more toward introverted personalities. Test and offer the communal table as an option, not as a mandatory desk space.

You may prevent employees from achieving "deep work" results.

Using Cal Newport's phrase, creative individuals need environments in which they can quietly recess for a period of time to accomplish deep, thoughtful work. A work table that is constantly connected to the buzz of colleagues and attuned to the same rhythms and thought patterns could prevent your most out-of-the-box coworkers from achieving breakthroughs for the company.

In a growing digital device society where communication primarily arrives through inboxes and texts, a communal table could provide much-needed personal interactions in your company. The good news is that such a solution can be easily customized to your unique needs, whether it's a smaller touchdown space, or a giant meeting area that--when full during lunchtime--is an inspiring moment to capture.

Published on: Oct 18, 2016