Question of the Week: Can Rearranging Employee Seating Improve Performance, Profits?

Employers invest in a number of tactics to increase worker performance – from education and training and performance management, to rewards and incentives. But new data shows that simply rearranging employee seating can be one of the fastest and lowest-cost ways of increasing the performance an organization’s workforce.

Research performed by Cornerstone OnDemand and researchers at Harvard Business School has revealed how the distance between two employees’ desks affects various performance measures and how placing the right type of workers in close proximity to each other has been shown to generate up to a 15 percent increase in organizational performance.

employee seating“With modern organizations shifting to open floor plans and flexible workspaces, this study shows that there is actually a science behind employee seating charts,” said Jason Corsello, senior vice president of strategy and corporate development for Cornerstone OnDemand. “This is a great example of the business value of people analytics and how an organization’s data can help them to operate smarter and more efficient, even when it comes to deciding who sits where at work.”

For organizations looking to increase returns on the human capital of their workforce, simply rearranging employee seating may be one of the most cost-effective resources at their disposal. For an organization of 2,000 workers, strategic seating planning could add up to an estimated $1 million to annual profits.

Optimize Seating Plans To Increase Productivity

The first study of its kind, Cornerstone’s “Planning Strategic Seating to Maximize Employee Performance” report analyzed data from more than 2,000 employees over a two-year period provided by a large technology company with several locations in the U.S. and Europe. The analysis concluded that who an employee sits next to can have a significant impact on his/her performance, for both positive and negative situations.

Research uncovered three types of workers: Productive, Generalists, and Quality. Productive workers are very productive but lack in quality. In contrast, Quality workers produce superior quality but lack in productivity. Generalists are average on both dimensions.

The study found that performance “Spillover” effects are strongest for performance measures where the employee is weakest. Seating Productive and Quality workers together and seating Generalists separately in their own group shows a 13 percent gain in productivity and a 17 percent gain in effectiveness. In short, symbiotic relationships are created from pairing those with opposite strengths. It turns out that those strong in one dimension are not very affected by Spillover in that dimension; however, they are very sensitive to Spillover on their weak dimension.

Rooting Out Toxic Behavior

The research also reveals that Spillover effects can extend to negative performance through misconduct and unethical behavior Spillovers. In measuring the extent to which a toxic worker (i.e., a worker that harms an organization’s people and/or property) influences others, the study finds that the negative performance of these workers spills over to fellow workers in a process similar to positive Spillover. This suggests that employee engagement surveys that capture how employees feel about their work environment and their managers can be an important first line of defense in rooting out toxicity by providing an early warning to intervene in such a team.

“Until now, not much has been explored on how the physical location of an employee and proximity to others can impact their productivity and performance,” said Dylan Minor, visiting assistant professor for Harvard Business School. “These results suggest that companies can develop a framework to maximize organizational performance simply through the physical placement of workers. Physical space is something organizations can manage relatively inexpensively, and it should be viewed as an important resource in increasing the returns to human capital.”

The “Planning Strategic Seating to Maximize Employee Performance” white paper is available here. Additional commentary about the research is available on Cornerstone’s blog, ReWork.

Have you found that employee seating charts have had an impact on your organization’s productivity or profits? Please share your experiences in the Comments section below.