With all the emphasis placed as of late on new working trends such as hot-desking and remote working, this most recent piece of research conducted and published by Cornerstone OnDemand and Harvard Business School may somewhat surprise you. The research asserts that by paying careful attention to where employees are sat within the working environment, particularly in relation to other workers, you could boost productivity in your office by as much as 15% overall.

The research, which the team responsible describe as the first ever study of ‘spatial management’, looked at 2,000 employees of a large multinational tech company with offices throughout the US and Europe. Over two years they gathered performance data for analysis, and the end results are truly telling.

They found that by seating the right people together, both productivity and profits can see a resultant boost. The paper states that the proper proximity between such workers “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.”

That certainly sounds promising, but how did they reach this conclusion?

The team analysed both individual performance as well as ‘spillover’, which is a term used by the researchers to describe the combined performance of all those working in close proximity to the employee in question. They then divided the workforce into three groups, namely ‘Productive’, ‘Generalists’ and ‘Quality’ workers.

For the purposes of this research ‘Productive’ workers are defined as those who are very productive yet lacking in quality; ‘Quality’ workers are defined as creating superior quality work at a less productive rate; ‘Generalists’ sit in the middle, being equally adept at both.

The ‘spillover’ of each employee was then ranked as either positive or negative, dependant of course on how it affects those nearby. As the study’s authors explain, Workers have different strengths, and . . . while spillover is minimal for a worker when it occurs in an area of strength, the same worker can be greatly affected if the spillover occurs in his or her area of weakness.”

So by seating people with the appropriate traits in close vicinity to each other, you can capitalise on the strengths and weaknesses of each to ultimately create a much more productive workforce. Furthermore, as workforce scientist in residence for HiQ Labs and one of the authors of the study, Michael Housman, recently explained to Fast Company, the positive tends to outweigh the negative.

Housman told the publication, “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.

“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.”

Unfortunately just as a good partnership will boost the performance of both individuals, the opposite can be true if the wrong people are put together. The report delved into this by discussing what the authors refer to as ‘toxic density’, whereby toxic workplace behaviour spreads from one employee to the next until it causes some pretty major problems for the employee and/or the company as a whole.

Housman explained, “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).”

On the bright side the report adamantly asserts that the spillover from positive behaviour is, as previously stated, much stronger than that resulting from negative behaviour. So, with a little careful planning and an understanding of the individuals within your workforce, you can capitalise on their positive traits for the good of the whole company.


Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. He is currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor as he continues to expand his horizons.
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