Article: Productivity at work depends on the person sitting next to you

#EmployeeRelations

Productivity at work depends on the person sitting next to you

Envy a colleague for their exceptional performance at work? You can catch their high performance bug too by sitting next to them.
Productivity at work depends on the person sitting next to you

Yes, it is true that if you sit with someone who is productive, you will follow their footsteps and become productive too. A research performed as a collaboration between Cornerstone OnDemand and researchers at Harvard Business School reveals that work place seating arrangement has a significant impact on employee’s performance. The researchers analyzed data of over 2,000 employees of a technology firm with locations across US and Europe, over a span of two years. According to the findings, making ‘right type of workers’ sit in close proximity to each other showed a 15% increase in organizational performance. Incredible, isn’t it? 

Now, performance spillover can be either positive or negative. The researchers also found out that approximately 10% of a worker’s performance spills onto their neighbours. So, when you replace an average performer with one who is twice as productive then it will increase the productivity of their neighbor by 10%, on an average. 

Who is impacted by spillovers?

The researchers categorized workers into three types:

  • Productive workers: quick to complete tasks, but lacked quality
  • Quality workers: superior quality work, but slow
  • Generalists: average in terms of quality and time


Their sample comprised of 25% each of productive and quality workers and the remaining 50% were generalists. They found out that making two productive workers sit together did not impact productivity so much nor did placing quality workers together increase their work quality. In other words, spillover is minimal if it occurs in an area of strength of a worker. As far as generalists are concerned, since they were average in both categories, they were less affected by spillovers from either side. 

Which workers should be paired?

Matching quality and productive workers and then generalists separately generates up to 15% of increased organizational performance. So, basically creating pairs of people with opposite strengths is bound to work because it will help them work on their weaknesses. Quoting the report which can be read here, 

“In total, based on our empirical estimates, for an organization of 2,000 workers, symbiotic Spatial management could add an estimated $1 million per annum to profit.”

What causes this performance spillover? 

Another interesting findings in the research was that performance spillover effects were immediate, but vanished within two months. An explanation researchers give is that the effects were a result of a combination of ‘inspiration’ and ‘peer pressure’ of sitting next to a high-performing colleague. So, for spatial management to work and in order to increase organizational performance, productive workers should be paired with quality workers and generalists be kept together. 

What about toxic workers, then? 

In the research sample, “toxic employees” were those whose services were terminated because of gross misconduct of behaviour or their ‘toxicity’. In fact, both productive and quality workers were seen susceptible to being negatively affected by a toxic employee’s behaviour. This, according to Harvard researchers means that “companies should pay close attention to employee engagement surveys to understand how employees feel about their work environment. Surveys can root out toxicity by providing an early warning for managers and HR to intervene.”

Spatial management of workers under-tapped

So, the seating arrangement in an office can definitely affect employee performance, but is it considered important or even critical in that regard? Perhaps not everywhere. But, the results definitely hint at how individual or team’s performance can be affected by this talent spillover. The office design, se-up will vary from organization to organization and can be implemented once different kinds of spillovers are identified. In this way they can make the most of an inexpensive method to improve employees’ and organization’s performance.

Topics: Employee Relations, Life @ Work

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