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article » Seat of power: Your desk buddies matter

Seat of power: Your desk buddies matter

May 30, 2017
3 min read

Sitting next to someone productive might improve your own work — but sharing space with a toxic employee makes it more likely you’ll get into trouble too. Putting people with complementary skills together is especially useful.

By: David Donaldson - 30.05.2017

Hiring and training are effective ways of building the human capital of an organisation.

They’re also expensive. So what if simply rearranging the setup of your office offered the chance to better harness your organisation’s potential?

Who you sit next to at work can have a serious impact on your own behaviour, research has found.

Putting two people together with complementary strengths can noticeably boost productivity, creating a “symbiotic” relationship where each can assist the other with help on their weaker points.

But the spillover effect cuts both ways: sitting near a ‘toxic’ colleague increases the likelihood you will end up being disciplined for misbehaving, too.

“These results suggest that companies can develop a framework to maximize organizational performance simply through the physical placement of workers.”

The report, written by Harvard Business School visiting assistant professor Dylan Minor and Michael Housman of HiQ Labs for consulting firm Cornerstone OnDemand, analysed data from more than 2000 employees of a large technology company with several locations in the US and Europe over a two-year period. To calculate the spillover impact of particular employees, office spaces were mapped out and a “distance weighting” was used to test the importance of proximity.

The research suggested there were three employee archetypes: productive, quality and generalist. Productive workers are very productive but are not as strong when it comes to quality. In contrast, quality workers produce superior quality work but lack in productivity. Generalists are average on both dimensions.

Performance spillover effects were strongest for performance measures where the employee is weakest. Seating productive and quality workers together and seating generalists separately in their own group showed a 13% rise in productivity and a 17% gain in effectiveness. This relationship works best with complementary skills: paired employees did not see much improvement on skills they were already strong on. They were, however, very sensitive to spillover on factors where they were weaker.

“Spillover most strongly improved an employee’s weakest areas when exposed to peers stronger on that dimension; however, the effect of spillover was only marginal when an employee’s strength was exposed to colleagues weaker on that dimension. As such, there are clear gains to be made by pairing workers with complementary strengths and weaknesses,” says the paper.

The research also reveals that spillover effects can extend to negative performance through misconduct and unethical behaviour. In measuring the extent to which a toxic worker — someone who harms an organisation’s people and/or property — influences others, the study found that the negative performance of these workers spills over to their colleagues in a process similar to positive spillover.

This suggests that employee engagement surveys that capture how employees feel about their work environment and their managers can be an important first line of defense in rooting out toxicity by providing an early warning to intervene in such a team, the authors argue.

The study also tested how persistent these effects were, finding that while both positive and negative spillover began to occur within a few weeks of people being put together, it also tended to dissipate within a month or two after the bad element was fired or moved somewhere else. So while desirable effects were not long-lasting, neither were damaging ones.

All this offers a fairly cheap means of improving your organisation’s output.

“Until now, not much has been explored on how the physical location of an employee and proximity to others can impact their productivity and performance,” said Minor, also an assistant professor of managerial economics and decision sciences at the Kellogg School of Management, in a statement.

“These results suggest that companies can develop a framework to maximize organizational performance simply through the physical placement of workers. Physical space is something organizations can manage relatively inexpensively, and it should be viewed as an important resource in increasing the returns to human capital.”

No-one is good at everything

This and previous research done by Minor has also confirmed that employees, at least among those he studied, did not tend to be good at everything.

“There’s not really that quote unquote superstar,” he told the Kellogg School blog. “It’s more a story of finding different specialists in a way that you can pair them together.”

He recommends working out the two or three most important strengths needed in employees, then seating people with complementary skills near each other. Minor thinks complementarity is important for skills with an upper limit, such as speed. For something like creativity, which has no upper limit, a more effective approach might be to pair people with the same talents so their positive spillover can act as a mutual reinforcer and each keeps nudging the other to do more creative work.

“You can actually measure a lot of this stuff and be pretty scientific about putting together an optimal spatial management of the organization.”

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