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Build Your Career Office Life

Smarter Seating? How Your Office Neighbor Affects Your Work

Smarter Seating? How Your Office Neighbor Affects Your Work
Credit: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Placing the right type of workers in close proximity to each other can generate up to a 15 percent increase in organizational performance, according to the study from Cornerstone OnDemand, a provider of cloud-based learning and talent-management software, and researchers at Harvard Business School in Massachusetts. For businesses with 2,000 employees, this translates into an additional $1 million in profit each year, the study said.

"These results suggest that companies can develop a framework to maximize organizational performance simply through the physical placement of workers," Dylan Minor, one of the study's authors and a visiting assistant professor for Harvard Business School, said in a statement. "Physical space is something organizations can manage relatively inexpensively, and it should be viewed as an important resource in increasing the returns to human capital."

For the study, researchers examined data from a two-year period of more than 2,000 employees working at a large technology company with locations in the U.S. and Europe. The study's authors separated workers into three different categories based on the work they produced:

  1. Productive: These employees are very productive, but don't always produce quality work.
  2. Quality: These workers produce work of superior quality, but aren't always productive.
  3. Generalists: These employees are average in terms of both productivity and quality.

The study's authors found that the impact on productivity and effectiveness is most pronounced when employees who are strong in one area but weak in another sit near each other. The researchers defined productivity by how long it takes an employee to finish a task, and effectiveness by how often employees need to ask a co-worker for help completing a task.

Specifically, seating "productive" and "quality" workers together and seating "generalists" separately in their own group shows a 13 percent gain in productivity and a 17 percent gain in effectiveness. [See Related Story: A Workplace That Works: Designing an Inspiring Office]

"In short, symbiotic relationships are created from pairing those with opposite strengths," the study's authors wrote.

While the impact of seating employees close to each other happens almost instantly, the effects aren't long-lasting if the two groups are eventually separated. Once separated, the positive impact the employees had on each other usually goes away within two months, according to the study.

"It means that sitting next to a high performer means that your performance will get a bump for as long as the two of you sit close to each other, Michael Housman, one of the study's authors and a workforce scientist in residence at hiQ Labs, told Business News Daily. "But once one of you moves away, then your performance will basically drop back to its original levels."

Alternatively, if the researchers had found that an employee's performance remained high even after the other person moved away, it would lead to a different conclusion. That is, it would suggest that employees had learned from their nearby co-workers, the researchers said. 

"But because your performance drops back down, we think it's more likely that you improved for that short time because of more competitive or inspiration effects," Housman said.

The misconduct and unethical actions of people can also rub off on those they sit near. The study found that the negative behavior of these so-called toxic workers can affect the co-workers they sit closest to. The research revealed that co-workers sitting near toxic employees have a 25 percent greater chance of being fired.

However, the adverse effects can largely dissipate if the toxic co-worker leaves the area within one month. Therefore, businesses must always be looking for any employees who are bad apples.

"This suggests that employee-engagement surveys that capture how employees feel about their work environment and their managers can be an important first line of defense to rooting out toxicity by providing an early warning to intervene in such a team," the study's authors wrote.

The study was co-authored by Yitzi Greenbaum, a data scientist at Cornerstone OnDemand.

Chad  Brooks
Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has nearly 15 years experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.