How your office seating plan can boost performance

by John Hilton01 Aug 2016
Forget rewards and incentives.

Simply rearranging employee seating is one of the fastest and cheapest ways to increase the performance of a workforce, according to researchers at the Harvard Business School and Cornerstone OnDemand.

The study claims that for an organisation of 2,000 workers, strategic seating arrangements could add up to $1 million per annum to profit.

The researchers looked at data from more than 2,000 employees over a two-year period provided by a technology company with multiple locations throughout America and Europe.

The results showed that the person an employee sits next to can have a significant positive/negative impact on their performance.

Moreover, the study identified three types of employees: productive, generalists and quality.

It found that 'productive workers' are very productive, but lack in quality. On the other hand, 'quality workers' produce superior quality, but lack in productivity. Finally, 'generalists' are average on both dimensions.

The results concluded that seating productive and quality workers together, and seating generalists separately in their own group shows a 13% gain in productivity and a 17% gain in effectiveness.

In other words, symbiotic relationships are produced from grouping together those with opposite strengths.

Dylan Minor, visiting assistant professor for Harvard Business School, said that until now, there was not much research on how the physical location of an employee and proximity to others can impact their productivity and performance.

“These results suggest that companies can develop a framework to maximise organisational performance simply through the physical placement of workers,” said Minor.

“Physical space is something organisations can manage relatively inexpensively, and it should be viewed as an important resource in increasing the returns to human capital.”

Jason Corsello, senior vice president of strategy and corporate development for Cornerstone OnDemand, added that with modern organisations shifting to open floor plans and flexible workspaces, this study shows that there is actually a science behind employee seating charts.

“This is a great example of the business value of people analytics and how an organisation’s data can help them to operate smarter and more efficient, even when it comes to deciding who sits where at work,” said Corsello.

The study also revealed that spillover effects can extend to negative performance through misconduct and unethical behaviour spillovers.

In measuring the extent to which a toxic worker (someone who harms an organisation’s people and/or property) influences others, the study finds that the negative performance of these employees spills over to fellow workers in a process similar to positive spillover.

This suggests that employee engagement surveys that shows how employees feel about their work environment and their managers can root out toxicity by providing an early warning to intervene.

Meanwhile, Helena Sherman, workplace trainer at Suncorp Group, has previously told L&D Professional that there are advantages in seating the younger generations and the older generations close to each other.

In particular, the older generations excel at sharing their life experience, while the younger generations are technologically savvy.

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