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Who You Sit Next to Matters

An employee's ability to work with others up, down, and across the corporate hierarchy has become a critical determinant of success; now, research shows that the quality of those sitting near you affects your own performance

One of the most important changes for companies over the past several years is that work has become more collaborative and interconnected. How you work with different people is now one of the most critical differentiators of what makes an employee successful.

In fact, in today’s more collaborative workplace more than 40% of any individual’s contribution is dictated by the quality of their coworkers. And those that are the most successful in this new environment are what CEB calls “enterprise contributors.”

The increasing importance of collaboration in the new work environment has inspired a whole wave of research into how employees’ interactions and relationships with their coworkers influence performance. For example, employees tend to be more productive when seated near colleagues with complementary work styles, and the presence of a few high performers can improve the work of a whole team.

Recent research by Jason Corsello and Dylan Minor – explained in the Harvard Business Review – examined the physical distance between employees to see if that had an effect on their performance. In other words, does simply sitting in proximity to high-performing neighbors at work make you more productive?

And it does. As Corsello and Minor explain: “We saw that neighbors have a significant impact on an employee’s performance, and it can be either positive or negative. In terms of magnitude, we found that approximately 10% of a worker’s performance spills over to her neighbors.

“Replacing an average performer with one who is twice as productive results in his or her neighboring workers increasing their own productivity by about 10%, on average.”

Beware the Toxic Employee

Corsello and Minor also discovered a negative spillover effect from sitting next to toxic employees. It is interesting to note that in some cases the negative impact of sitting next to a toxic employee can be more powerful than the positive impact of sitting next to a productive employee: “If a toxic worker sat next to a nontoxic worker,” they write, “the toxic worker’s influence won out, and the nontoxic worker had an increased chance of becoming toxic.”

So, who you sits next to matters. Yet these findings come at a time when many companies are embracing a variety of flexible workplace arrangements, such as hoteling or hot-desking. These arrangements reduce costs (because you just need less office space), but studies like this one, along with other evidence that hot-desking might reduce productivity, should change how companies think about this.

By designing seating and office layouts without being thoughtful of how people work and work with each other, companies might be decreasing real estate costs, but those direct costs are likely getting swamped by the opportunity costs of lost employee productivity.

More On…

  • Leadership and Professional Development

    Learn more about CEB's work on the importance of collaboration and the new work environment.

  • CEB Talent Daily

    This post was originally published on CEB Talent Daily, a provider of daily news and analysis on the world of talent management.

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