Cornerstone OnDemand researchers have discovered a surprisingly simple way to increase productivity: better office seating arrangements.
In a recent article in Harvard Business Review, Jason Corsello and Dylan Minor described the results of a new study, which suggested that who an employee sits next to affects how they perform — and that grouping the right types of coworkers together can improve productivity and work quality.
The study was built upon the concept of “spatial management,” or the pursuit of how to best physically locate workers within an organization. Cornerstone analyzed the data of more than 2,000 employees over a two-year period provided by a large technology company with locations in the U.S. and Europe. This data included worker performance on three key metrics: productivity, or the average length of time it took a worker to complete a task; effectiveness, or the average daily rate at which a worker needed to refer a task to a different worker to solve; and quality, or the client’s satisfaction with the task.
For each employee on each of these three metrics, the researchers calculated what they called “spillover,” or a measure of the performance of the employee’s surrounding peers. The HBR article used this example: assume a worker has three coworkers: one sits next to her, one sits 25 feet away, and another sits 50 feet away. The researchers looked at the performance of the three coworkers along with their distance from the worker, and through data modeling measured the average spillover of co-worker performance on the worker.
They also divided employees into three types of workers: productive, generalist, and quality. Productive workers are very productive but lack in quality, while quality workers produce superior quality but lack in productivity. Generalists are average on both dimensions.
The results indicated that neighbors have a significant impact on an employee’s performance, and it can be either positive or negative. So naturally, the study asked the question: what types of workers should be seated together? The results confirmed that matching productive and quality workers together and matching generalists separately generates up to 15 percent of increased organizational performance.
However, seating two productive workers together did not significantly increase their productivity — nor did placing quality workers together increase their work quality. And since generalists were average in both categories, they were less affected by spillover effects from either side. So, in a nutshell, symbiotic relationships are created from pairing those with opposite strengths. It turns out that those strong on one dimension are not very affected by spillover on that dimension. But, they are very sensitive to spillover on their weak dimension.
My former boss used to say that a bad attitude at work was like cholera. It starts inside one person and then quickly infiltrates everyone around. Cornerstone’s research seems to support this idea. If toxic employees were seated near each other, it increased the probability that one of them would be terminated by 27 percent. And, in contrast to productivity and quality spillover, all types of workers were susceptible to toxic spillover. If a toxic worker sat next to a nontoxic worker, the toxic worker’s influence won out, and the nontoxic worker had an increased chance of becoming toxic.
Both managers and individual employees should pay close attention to these findings, especially in this era of open offices when the close presence of co-workers is an even more significant factor. Employers should care that in an organization of 2,000 workers, strategic spatial management could increase profit by an estimated $1 million per year. Individual employees should realize that their career success may well depend on the actions and attitudes of others, and speak up about seat preference.