article » Move your desk beside the star performer and you’ll shine too

Move your desk beside the star performer and you’ll shine too

August 11, 2016
2 min read

If she is next to a diligent worker then some of that will rub off on her, according to a study


If you want to do better at work, sit by the office swot. A study has found that just being close to good workers can improve performance — to the extent that clever seating plans could raise a company’s productivity by 15 per cent.

If hard work is contagious, so is the reverse. “Toxic” employees drag down their neighbours, and it is better to sack them before the rot sets in.

A lot of research has been carried out into the effects of office culture on productivity, but less has been done at the level of individual employees. Economists from Harvard Business School wanted to investigate similar effects at the micro-level, examining how individual employees affect each other.

For their study they were given access to the seating plans and individual employee performances of more than 2,000 employees from an unnamed technology company. For each employee they were able to measure productivity, based on how long they took to complete a task, quality, based on satisfaction ratings from their clients, and effectiveness, which was judged by looking at how often they had to ask for help.

They found that good attributes rubbed off on nearby colleagues, especially if they were good in complementary areas. Putting someone who was highly productive but produced average work beside someone who did less work but of a higher quality led to improvements in both. The quality of the fast worker’s output increased, as did the speed of their new neighbour.

Dylan Minor, the lead author on the paper, wanted to see why that would be, whether they were learning from each other or just inspired by each other. When he split the pairs up their performance reverted to normal, implying that it was not that they had gained skills, but simply that they were inspired by each other. This effect also explained the reverse outcome, when really bad employees brought everyone else down.

“The negative performance of these workers spills over to fellow workers,” Professor Minor said. “The bad news is that negative spillover effects happen almost immediately. The good news is that the effects vanish within a month of no longer being exposed to the toxic worker.” Good news for the company that is, if not the employment security of toxic workers.

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