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How Where You Sit In Your Office Impacts Your Productivity

Bad behavior in the workplace is contagious. But a new study suggests that pairing workers together can boost productivity and profits.

[Photo: bbernard via Shutterstock]

Your office seating chart may hold the key to how happy and productive you are at work.

New research from Cornerstone OnDemand and Harvard Business School suggests that rearranging desks or sitting next to someone with a complementary work style can be a cost-effective way to inject energy and efficiency into the workday.

How Much Does It Matter Where You Sit?

We may be more satisfied with our jobs than we were a decade ago—at least according to Gallup’s research. But employee engagement and retention continue to be among the top challenge companies face around the world, per a report from Deloitte on global human resource trends. That’s because disengaged workers come with a hefty price tag. Gallup estimates that the U.S. economy loses up to $550 billion per year when productivity flags as a result of unhappy employees.

In what they describe as the first study of "spatial management," the researchers analyzed data from the more than 2,000 workers at a large technology company with several locations across the U.S. and Europe over two years.

They discovered that seating the right types of workers together led to increased productivity and profits. The proper proximity, they write, "has been shown to generate up to a 15% increase in organizational performance. For an organization of 2,000 workers, strategic seating planning could add an estimated $1 million per annum to profit."

Their analysis measured performance as well as a definitive metric for "spillover" for each employee—the term the researchers used to measure the combined performance of everyone seated around a given employee.

The study looked at three types of employees: "Productive," "Generalists," and "Quality" workers. The researchers defined productive workers as very productive but lacking in quality. Quality workers produce superior quality but aren’t as productive. And generalists are average in both areas.

Spillover was ranked as either positive or negative, depending on the distance between two people. "Workers have different strengths, and . . . while spillover is minimal for a worker when it occurs in an area of strength," the report’s authors write, "the same worker can be greatly affected if the spillover occurs in his or her area of weakness."

Behavior Is Contagious

Michael Housman, a workforce scientist in residence for HiQ Labs and one of the authors of the study, points out that positive performance seems to have a much stronger spillover than negative performance.

"If you sit a strong and a weak performer next to each other, the weaker employee performs much better, and the stronger employee’s performance doesn't decline much at all," Housman tells Fast Company. He advises lower performers to try and sit next to strong performers.

Conversely, Housman notes, "If you are a strong performer, you shouldn't avoid those that aren't as good as you. It's not a zero sum game. The performance of both employees can be better when you put them together than if they were left alone."
 
We know that colds and the flu are contagious, but other research has shown that toxic behavior in the workplace can be just as virulent. Leaders can unwittingly create a culture that fails to reward honesty or ethical behavior. In some cases, stress can be absorbed the same way you’d inhale secondhand smoke. And selfish behavior has likewise been shown to seed itself among groups of people.

This report shed new light on those findings by pointing to an effect called "toxic density." It turns out that not only can bad behavior spread, it can also get "infected" people fired. "If you add a toxic worker to within a 25-foot radius of a focal worker, the chance that the focal worker becomes a toxic worker themselves more than doubles (112.5% increase)," Housman explained in an email, adding, "Employees are 150% more likely to be terminated for toxic behavior when sitting in a toxic employee-dense seating area."

The important—and encouraging—thing to remember, says Housman, is that good performance has a much stronger spillover than bad performance, and strong performance is more contagious than bad performance.

Why? "This could be because people have a competitive nature and want to perform at the level of those around them," he says. It may just take a bit of musical chairs on employers' parts to tap into that.

Related: How To Design An Office For Maximizing Employee Happiness

Productivity tips from the world's busiest people
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