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Watch Where You Sit

Do you remember sitting in a classroom? More than likely, your teacher assigned seats and you probably weren’t next to anyone you really wanted to be near. And inevitably a few times a year, seats were rearranged, either to break up a couple of trouble makers or bring a not so engaged student to the front of the room. Teachers recognize that who you sit next to in the classroom matters, so it makes sense that who you sit next to at work matters too.

It is reported that between 40-60% of office interactions an individual has will take place with the employees that sit closest to them. Have you given any thought to the seating arrangements in your office? Do you group employees together by department? Going beyond that have you specifically thought about which employees should sit next to each other?

An extensive study by Cornerstone OnDemand (a cloud based talent management solution company) and Harvard Business School observed 2,000 workers at a software company. They found that workers could be put into one of three categories:

  • High productivity: Very productive, but the quality of work was not as strong.

  • High quality: The quality of work was very strong, but productivity was not as high.

  • Generalists: Those who were average with both productivity and quality.

Keeping these categories in mind, they arranged office seating to find optimal pairings. Generalists did better when sitting near other generalists. But they found when they put a high productivity worker near a high quality worker they BOTH improved in their area of weakness while not having a measurable decrease in what was already their strength. They termed this the “spillover effect”. On average, by recognizing workers strengths and weaknesses and strategically using that information to assign office seating, there was on average a 13% gain in productivity and a 17% gain in effectiveness. In a company of 2,000 workers this could add an estimated $1 million per year in additional profit.

The “spillover effect” isn’t limited to productivity and effectiveness in the office. Moods are contagious too. You’ll find most employees have one of these four moods.

  • Calm and Relaxed

  • Stressed and Anxious

  • Cheerful and High Energy

  • Sluggish and Low Energy

Luckily, a calm, relaxed demeanor is most easily spread and a low energy mood is the hardest to “catch”. But it’s worth keeping in mind these general moods and how they can spread throughout the office environment and being able to call on those calm, relaxed people to diffuse stressful situations. Note that a stressed and anxious mood has more “spillover” than a happy, high energy mood.

Don’t confuse a low energy mood with a toxic employee. The “spillover effect” of a toxic worker (someone who blames others for their failings, manipulates, gossips, and sabotages other peoples’ work) takes over quickly. Bad news travels fast as they say. Some data analysis has shown that just being within a 25 foot radius of a toxic worker more than doubles the chance of the nearby employee becoming toxic themselves and they are 150% more likely to be terminated. Catching and correcting toxic behavior is critical to create a positive workplace environment. Positive employee engagement helps keep retention high, but a toxic work environment can send employees to the door.

Again, we’ve known since school that who you sit with matters. So, it’s time to take that knowledge and apply it to the office. Identifying employees’ strengths and weaknesses and using some seating strategy can be an inexpensive way to boost productivity and morale.

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