Who You Sit Next to Matters

Who You Sit Next to Matters

One of the over-arching talent realities of the last several years is that work has become more collaborative, interconnected, and matrixed. How you work with different people is now one of the most critical differentiators of employee success. In fact, in today’s more collaborative environment we have found more than 40 percent of any individual’s contribution is dictated by the quality of their coworkers. At CEB, we have been able to analyze the profile of employees that are the most successful in this new environment: We call them enterprise contributors, and if you are interested in learning more about them, you can check out our executive guidance on them here.

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

At the Harvard Business Review this week, Jason Corsello and Dylan Minor unveil the findings of their latest study, in which they examined the physical distance between employees to see how that impacted their performance. In other words, does simply sitting in proximity to high-performing neighbors at work make you more productive? Indeed, they find, it does:

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.

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.