The Key to Productivity Is a Good Desk Neighbor

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You may already know from experience that when it comes time to buckle down and concentrate, we tend to follow the lead of whoever’s around us. You focus better when you’re surrounded by people who look like they’re hard at work — one reason why you might actually get more done sitting in a coffee shop than alone in the comfort of your own living room. But as Dylan Minor, a professor of managerial economics at the Kellogg School of Management, and Jason Corsello, senior vice-president at the human-resources software company Cornerstone OnDemand, recently explained in Harvard Business Review, things actually get more detailed than that: It’s not just about who else happens to be in the room. Proximity matters, too.

In a study they conducted for Cornerstone, the pair amassed two years’ worth of data for 2,000 employees across several locations of a single company, looking at both their productivity and the quality of their work, as well as their physical location within the office. More important, they wrote, they also examined the relationship between all these factors:

For every performance measure, we looked at “spillover,” a measure of the impact that office neighbors had on an employee’s performance. Assume a worker has three coworkers: one sits next to her, one sits 25 feet away, and another sits 50 feet away. We looked at the performance of the three coworkers along with their distance from the worker, and through various data modeling techniques we measured the average spillover of their performance on the worker.

Based on the results, Minor and Corsello divided employees into three types: productive workers, who were extra speedy; quality workers, who weren’t as quick as their productive counterparts but turned out a better finished product; and generalists, who were toward the middle of the pack in both categories.

But these categories weren’t necessarily fixed — when they crunched the numbers, they found that as much as 10 percent of an employee’s performance is vulnerable to this spillover effect. In other words, they explained, “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 percent, on average.” The effect also only worked one way: Lesser performers could improve by sitting next to more competent colleagues, but those colleagues wouldn’t find themselves dragged down by their seatmates. (Average workers, they found, weren’t as susceptible to the spillover effect from either direction.)

The caveat: Employees only had the power to influence co-workers from other categories. Two quality workers sitting next to each other wouldn’t necessarily make either one’s work better, nor would two neighboring productive workers make each other faster. In other words, knowing your own strengths and weaknesses isn’t necessarily enough to help you improve on the job — you need to know your neighbors’, too.

The Key to Productivity Is a Good Desk Neighbor