The Power of Proximity: How your Co-Workers Influence your Productivity
By: Tory McNally
Posted: 2:01 AM CDT Saturday, Sep. 23, 2023
Anyone on social media knows cutesy stats with nice graphics often slip by on our feeds. One I spotted this week from Brad Stulberg on X (formerly known as Twitter) was intriguing.
Sit within 25 feet of a high performer, performance improves by 15 per cent, sit within 25 feet of a low performer, performance declines by 30 per cent.
There were similar findings for other emotions and behaviours.
It piqued my interest, so I decided to dig into it further to see where the research came from and what we can actually learn from it.
Though the research was conducted in the golden pre-pandemic era of 2016 by Dylan Minor, an assistant professor of Managerial Economics and Decision Sciences at the Kellogg School, and Michael Housman of HiQ Labs, it is useful to think about today in the midst of return-to-office protocols and work-from-home allowances.
In the modern workplace, productivity is a coveted asset that drives businesses forward. Employers often turn to traditional strategies like rewards, training, and incentives in the pursuit of optimizing worker performance. These approaches undeniably contribute to employee growth.
But research reveals there is another unconventional — yet highly effective — tool to drive immediate and substantial gains in productivity: strategic office seating arrangements.
Research has shown where you sit within a workspace can have a significant effect on your productivity — with proximity to high and low performers yielding notable outcomes. While the concept might seem simple, its implications are profound, and they offer a low-cost solution to yield remarkable results.
The Impact of Proximity
The idea that your surroundings shape your behaviour is not new. From childhood, we are taught the company we keep can influence our choices and actions.
In the workplace, this concept takes on a tangible form, as employees sit within close proximity to one another.
Studies on workplace dynamics reveal that sitting within 25 feet of a high performer can lead to a remarkable 15 per cent increase in your own productivity. Conversely, being in close quarters with a low performer can result in a disheartening 30 per cent decrease in productivity.
The High Performer Effect
The phenomenon of being near a high performer and experiencing a boost in productivity can be attributed to several factors. High performers often exhibit traits such as focus, determination, and efficient work habits. When one is in close proximity to such individuals, there is a subconscious tendency to mirror their behaviour. This is known as the “social facilitation” effect, where people tend to perform better when they are in the presence of those who excel in their tasks.
Furthermore, the positive energy radiated by high performers can be contagious. Engaging in conversations with them, observing their problem-solving methods, and witnessing their commitment to tasks can inspire nearby colleagues to strive for excellence. This can lead to an overall elevation of the work environment and foster a culture of achievement and innovation.
What’s particularly fascinating is the identification of distinct worker types: productive, quality-focused, and generalists.
Productive workers are the ones that plow through large amounts of work. Quality-focused employees pour through details, ensuring minimal errors. Generalists are the best of both — achieving results with some quality control measures.
The ideal arrangement, as discovered, involves pairing productive and quality workers side by side.
This strategic seating sparks a spillover effect, where each worker’s strength compensates for the other’s weakness. The result? A remarkable 13 per cent surge in productivity and 17 per cent increase in effectiveness within these collaborative groups.
Conversely, seating two highly productive workers together or two quality-focused workers together fails to replicate the same boost.
These findings underscore the importance of complementary skills within a workspace, suggesting the convergence of diverse strengths fuels mutual growth.
The low performer effect
Not surprisingly, the presence of low performers in close proximity can pose a considerable challenge to maintaining one’s productivity.
Low performers may exhibit traits such as disengagement, lack of initiative, and suboptimal work habits. When people are consistently exposed to these behaviors, they can inadvertently adopt them — leading to a decline in their own performance.
Psychologists suggest this phenomenon is linked to the “chameleon effect,” wherein people tend to mimic the actions and emotions of those around them. If a low performer displays disinterest or procrastination, those nearby might inadvertently mirror these actions, thereby hindering their own productivity.
In the worst-case scenarios, toxic behaviour — ranging from misconduct to workplace violence — exerts a negative influence on neighbouring employees. The spillover effect of toxic workers is seen almost immediately in those seated nearby, with instances of harassment and destruction of property measuring a quick spread. Reassuringly, within a month of moving a toxic performer out of a work area, the effects often vanish. This suggests inspiration and peer pressure from close proximity are likely the driving forces behind this phenomenon.
Implications for workplace design
The insights gained from these studies have important implications for workplace design and team arrangement. Companies looking to maximize productivity may consider seating arrangements to strategically position high performers who have complementary skillsets together. This can amplify their positive influence, creating a hub of productivity within the workspace.
For employees identified as low performers, a different approach might be necessary. Mentorship programs or interventions aimed at improving their performance can help uplift their productivity and prevent negative effects from permeating the workspace.
In a world where efficiency and output are paramount, understanding the subtle yet powerful ways in which our environment shapes our behaviour is crucial. Proximity to high and low performers is a fascinating aspect of workplace dynamics, highlighting the interconnected nature of human interactions.
As individuals, we have the agency to harness this phenomenon to our advantage, either by seeking the company of those who inspire us to excel or by consciously resisting the influence of counterproductive behaviours. In the grand scheme of productivity, where you sit might just play a more significant role than you ever imagined.
Source: Housman, Michael, and Dylan Minor. 2016. “Organizational Design and Space: The Good, the Bad, and the Productive.” Working paper.
Tory McNally, CPHR, BSc., Vice President, HR Consulting is a human resource professional, radio personality, speaker, and problem solver. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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