Your deskmate at work could be feeding your energy or sapping your strength.
At school, was your deskmate the class swot, the A grader who always handed their homework in on time? Or were you more likely to be sitting next to the person aiming paper airplanes across the classroom at their mates?
Well, guess what, it matters who you sit next to now you’re in work. Being next to a highly productive or creative employee has a knock-on effect for their deskmate, lifting up their work quality and quantity. Equally, a poor performing employee tends to “infect” those working in close proximity to them.
The researchers, publishing their findings in the Harvard Business Review, studied two years’ worth of data from a big technology company with offices in the US and Europe. They found that “approximately 10 per cent of a worker’s performance spills over to their neighbours. Replacing an average performer with one who is twice as productive results in his or her deskmate increasing their own productivity by about 10 per cent, on average”.
Workers were randomly assigned to teams and to desks, and periodically moved around in a quasi-random way due to the demand and supply of workers.
The researchers categorised workers in different ways based on measurements centred around productivity and how long it took the employee to complete a task, the rate at which the employee had to seek someone else’s input in order to complete the job and the client’s satisfaction with the worker’s output.
Which category are you?
They ended up with three categories: productive workers, who got things done quickly but lacked quality; quality workers, who produced superior work but rather slowly; and generalists, who were just average across both dimensions. (At the tech company, the distribution was 25 per cent productive, 25 per cent quality and the remaining 50 per cent were generalists.)
What’s interesting is when productive workers were seated next to quality workers, both compensated for the others’ weaknesses. There was a “spillover” effect. So the quality workers sped up and the productive workers improved the quality of their work. However, when quality workers were seated together and productive workers worked side by side, it had no impact.
Results like this have intriguing implications for workplace organisation and how HR can leverage this kind of data to improve productivity. It’s also insightful in showing what can happen when you have toxic employees in the mix – and how they might be better handled.
Employees who are deemed to be having a negative effect on other workers are here categorised as people whose behaviour includes misconduct, workplace violence, drug or alcohol abuse, sexual harassment, falsification of documents, fraud and other violations of company policy. When two of these people are deskmates, the researchers found that it is 27 per cent more likely that one or both of them would be asked to leave the business. Sadly, in the business world, good loses out to bad. Even when sitting next to a productive or quality or general worker, it seems that the influence of a toxic employee is more potent – and they are more likely to negatively influence the good guys (or girls) than the other way round.
Seating plan of action
Getting the seating arrangements right is a cheap and easy way to achieve better productivity outcomes, argue the researchers. They recommend, firstly, paying closer attention to employee engagement surveys and nip any toxicity in the bud. Secondly, analyse forensically to see where “spillover” between quality workers and productive workers might occur. Then draw up seating plans accordingly.
Before you decide to settle for sitting next to slow-coach Sean who always remembers your birthday, know that the researchers have even put a dollar figure on what it could mean to the business. In an organisation of 2000 workers, you could be looking at a $1 million extra in annual profit from greater productivity. So maybe it’s time to move closer to over-achieving Jo.