Increase Your Performance by Changing Your Seat?

By: Nancy Ordman

Employers often invest resources to improve employee performance. They tweak compensation and training programs and workspace design, among other factors, to accomplish this goal. They spend a lot of money to increase the value of their human capital; according to a study by Deloitte, in 2013 businesses spent an average of $1,169 per employee—$1,847 for tech workers—on human resource development. Plenty of virtual pages in the literature of management report on the relative effectiveness of various incentives and training programs. For the many employees who work in open-plan offices, the answer could be as simple as rearranging the seating plan.

Research recently reported in the Harvard Business Review indicates that an employee’s neighbors can have a big impact on work performance. The authors did not study the kinds of distracting neighbor behaviors—loud telephone conversations, space-poaching, chatting, general noise—that often evoke complaints about open-plan offices. Instead, they looked at the spillover effect that a highly productive employee can have on a less-productive colleague and concluded that spatial management can have a significant impact on performance.

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Authors Jason Corsello (Cornerstone) and Dylan Minor (Kellogg School of Business, Northwestern University) collaborated on the pathbreaking research that led to this conclusion. They analyzed two years’ worth of data on 2,000 employees at a large technology company, mining five human resources data sources. Among the data points included were employee seating location and distance between employees, as well as worker performance data. They broke performance data into productivity (amount of time to complete a task), effectiveness (the number of tasks a worker referred to someone else to solve), and quality (client satisfaction with outcome).

Measuring distance between co-workers enabled Corsello and Minor to model spillover, or impact of one worker on another, as a function of physical distance between workers. One of the company’s human resource practices, moving workers quasi-randomly to different teams based on company need, lends additional credence to the researchers’ conclusions.

Corsello and Minor classified workers into three groups:

  • Productive workers who worked quickly but whose work lacked quality (25 percent of the sample)
  • Quality workers who worked more slowly but who produced superior work (25 percent)
  • Generalists who were somewhere in the middle (50 percent)

The results uncovered strong symbiotic relationships between Productive and Quality workers, groups who are somewhat opposite. Quality workers might observe and adopt Productive workers’ good time-management skills, for example. Seating these types of workers in close proximity to each other and Generalists together increased productivity 13 percent and effectiveness 17 percent.

This research also touched on Toxic employees, defined as workers who were terminated for misconduct, workplace violence, drug or alcohol abuse, sexual harassment, fraud, and other violations of company policy. If Toxic employees sat near each other, the probability that one would be terminated increased 27 percent. Toxic workers influenced nontoxic workers, increasing the latter’s chances of turning Toxic.

What causes spillover?

The authors speculate that a combination of peer pressure and inspiration drove the results. Since employees moved regularly between teams, individuals likely rotated among some combination of Quality to Productive to Generalist to Toxic colleagues over the course of a year.

The takeaways from this research are equally important to employers and employees. If a worker sits near a toxic employee, they should ask to be relocated or for some other change to alleviate the negative spillover. First-line managers, who should know best what category best describes each of their staff, can rearrange seating to best achieve the benefits of positive spillover.

The researchers didn’t address other impacts that an open-plan office can have on productivity, or whether a particular configuration would work better than another. “Open plan” can mean anything from long straight tables with workstations every four feet to more private desk spaces with visual barriers between workers. Backlash against open-plan offices is growing, including the observation that some types of work are better-suited than others to wide-open spaces. Since the overwhelming majority of office spaces have some manner of openness, managers and workers should exploit whatever advantages they can find.

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