Organizations Leadership May 8, 2017

Sit­ting Near a High-Per­former Can Make You Bet­ter at Your Job

Spillover” from cer­tain cowork­ers can boost our pro­duc­tiv­i­ty — or jeop­ar­dize our employment.

Michael Meier

Based on the research of

Michael Housman

Dylan Minor

The peo­ple we sit near at work inevitably impact our day. They may bright­en our mood or dri­ve us crazy.

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What’s more, our work neigh­bors can actu­al­ly change how well we do our own jobs.

Researchers looked at the 25-foot radius around high-per­form­ers at a large tech­nol­o­gy firm and found that these work­ers boost­ed per­for­mance in cowork­ers by 15 per­cent. That pos­i­tive spillover” trans­lat­ed into an esti­mat­ed $1 mil­lion in addi­tion­al annu­al prof­its, accord­ing to new research from Dylan Minor, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of man­age­r­i­al eco­nom­ics and deci­sion sci­ences at the Kel­logg School. 

Of course, the flip­side is that bad eggs impact their neigh­bors, too. Neg­a­tive spillover from so-called tox­ic work­ers is even more pro­nounced — some­times hav­ing twice the mag­ni­tude of impact on prof­its as pos­i­tive spillover. Yet, while this tox­ic spillover hap­pens very quick­ly, it also dis­si­pates almost imme­di­ate­ly once that work­er is either fired or rel­e­gat­ed to the far phys­i­cal reach­es of the company. 

Which means that com­pa­nies poten­tial­ly have a very cheap way to boost pro­duc­tiv­i­ty — sim­ply shift some desks around — as opposed to rely­ing on expen­sive train­ing and recruit­ing, Minor says. In an era where com­pa­nies are exper­i­ment­ing with open floor plans and oth­er non­tra­di­tion­al seat­ing arrange­ments, the stakes can be high. Minor’s research pro­vides tan­gi­ble take­aways for lead­ers think­ing about how to group their staff. 

Com­pa­nies are real­iz­ing that, wow, spa­tial man­age­ment real­ly does mat­ter. Let’s put some more work into think­ing about how to do it well,’” he says. 

The Spillover Effect 

This research grew out of pre­vi­ous work by Minor and coau­thor Michael Hous­man of HiQ Labs that focused only on tox­ic work­ers. Using data from con­sult­ing firm Cor­ner­stone OnDe­mand, the researchers ana­lyzed more than 58,000 hourly ser­vice work­ers at 11 well-known firms. They found that a tox­ic worker’s neg­a­tive finan­cial impact — $12,800 by their cal­cu­la­tion — was far greater than the finan­cial boost that comes from a superstar. 

Once a tox­ic per­son shows up next to you, your risk of becom­ing tox­ic your­self has gone up.” 

Minor and Hous­man pre­sent­ed their find­ings to the firms involved. A tech­nol­o­gy com­pa­ny in Cal­i­for­nia that was part of the study approached the researchers after­ward and asked if they could drill down deep­er into the data. How, the com­pa­ny won­dered, did phys­i­cal prox­im­i­ty impact spillover?

We’ve known since kinder­garten that who you sit next to can mat­ter,” Minor says. 

But it’s not so sim­ple. Peo­ple are not uni­form­ly good or bad at their jobs; many excel in some areas and are aver­age or below aver­age in oth­ers. In today’s world, most of the jobs we do are very much mul­ti­di­men­sion­al,” Minor says. We’re not just putting wid­gets togeth­er one piece at a time.” 

So what did phys­i­cal prox­im­i­ty do when employ­ees’ work was approached in a mul­ti­di­men­sion­al way? To explore this, Minor and Hous­man got two years’ worth of detailed infor­ma­tion on the per­for­mance of more than 2,000 work­ers at the tech firm. They picked two mea­sures of per­for­mance — speed and qual­i­ty — and gave work­ers a rank­ing of either high or low for each. 

They also defined tox­ic work­ers the same way as in their pre­vi­ous research, as any­one whose behav­ior was so bad that they were fired. Tox­ic work­ers end­ed up com­pris­ing about 2 per­cent of the work­ers studied. 

Then the researchers lit­er­al­ly mapped out where each employ­ee sat and ana­lyzed how each person’s work shift­ed over time as their neigh­bors changed. 

Pos­i­tive Spillover 

First the good news. 

Hav­ing a high-per­form­ing neigh­bor is a bonus for every­one. Employ­ees who ranked high on either speed or qual­i­ty boost­ed the per­for­mance of those with­in a 25-foot radius. 

The impact was par­tic­u­lar­ly strong on those who were matched with some­one who had a com­ple­men­tary skill. In oth­er words, if Bill is rat­ed high for speed and Bob is rat­ed low, Bob’s speed will improve when he sits near Bill, more so than if they were both already speedy work­ers. The same holds true for quality. 

And, cru­cial­ly, Bill’s speed will not be dragged down by his slow­er-mov­ing neighbor. 

The beau­ti­ful part of it is that when we put these peo­ple togeth­er, they’re not going to mate­ri­al­ly suf­fer on the area of strength,” Minor says. They’re only going to improve on their area of weakness.” 

This idea of match­ing peo­ple with com­ple­men­tary strengths makes sense when the skill in ques­tion is some­thing that has a finite upper lim­it, like speed, Minor explains. But for oth­er skills, like cre­ativ­i­ty, where there is no true upper lim­it, it might make sense to pair peo­ple with the same strengths so that their pos­i­tive spillover keeps nudg­ing the oth­er to do more and more cre­ative work. 

Neg­a­tive Spillover 

Now the bad news. 

Tox­ic work­ers are real­ly, real­ly tox­ic. And they infect their neigh­bors very quickly. 

Once a tox­ic per­son shows up next to you, your risk of becom­ing tox­ic your­self has gone up,” Minor says. And while pos­i­tive spillover was lim­it­ed to about a 25-foot radius, with tox­ic work­ers, you can see their imprint and neg­a­tive effect across an entire floor.” 

Keep in mind how nar­row­ly the researchers defined tox­ic — some­one who is fired for their behav­ior. This means that sim­ply sit­ting near some­one who gets fired means you your­self are now more like­ly to com­mit an act heinous enough to mer­it firing. 

And this tox­ic spillover hap­pens almost imme­di­ate­ly. The researchers saw neigh­bors go bad, so to speak, as soon as that tox­ic neigh­bor showed up. Where­as pos­i­tive spillover that boost­ed speed or qual­i­ty gen­er­al­ly took a month to impact a low­er-per­form­ing neighbor. 

Why is neg­a­tive spillover so much more pow­er­ful than pos­i­tive? Minor believes it is line with many oth­er psy­cho­log­i­cal stud­ies that show that, neg­a­tive effects have more of a mag­ni­tude than pos­i­tive effects.” For exam­ple, los­ing $100 is more painful than win­ning $100 is joyful. 

But even among the tox­ic, there is rea­son to be reas­sured, Minor says. Once they’re trans­ferred or fired, your risk pret­ty much imme­di­ate­ly sub­sides.” Plus, he adds, most peo­ple are not toxic.” 

Learn­ing vs. Peer Pressure 

Next the researchers explored why spillover hap­pens. Are peo­ple learn­ing good or bad behav­ior from their neigh­bors or is some­thing like peer pres­sure at work? 

They rea­soned that if employ­ees were learn­ing from those near­by, then the pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive effects would con­tin­ue after their influ­en­tial neigh­bor left. But the data showed that both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive spillover were fleeting. 

While this is unfor­tu­nate for pos­i­tive spillover — wouldn’t it be great if the improved employ­ee con­tin­ued being awe­some for­ev­er? — it is good news in the neg­a­tive department. 

You could have this oth­er kind of mod­el where peo­ple learn how to become a crim­i­nal or a jerk and then they stay a crim­i­nal or a jerk,” Minor says. 

Spa­tial Man­age­ment Matters 

The researchers’ find­ings pro­vide some tan­gi­ble advice for managers. 

In addi­tion to mea­sur­ing spillover, Minor was inter­est­ed to find that, at least among the hourly work­ers he stud­ied, there real­ly was no such thing as a work­er who is high­ly skilled in everything. 

There’s not real­ly that quote unquote super­star,” he says. It’s more a sto­ry of find­ing dif­fer­ent spe­cial­ists in a way that you can pair them together.” 

He advis­es lead­ers to think about what strengths they want in their employ­ees and then nar­row that down to the two or three most impor­tant ones. Then lead­ers should decide whether to pair peo­ple with sim­i­lar or com­ple­men­tary skills near each oth­er, based on whether the skills have an upper lim­it, like speed, or do not, like creativity. 

You can actu­al­ly mea­sure a lot of this stuff and be pret­ty sci­en­tif­ic about putting togeth­er an opti­mal spa­tial man­age­ment of the orga­ni­za­tion,” Minor says. 

Yet much of the changes in office lay­outs have not been done sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly. Minor is work­ing with the same firm now to look at the pros and cons of open floor plans. Oth­er offices are exper­i­ment­ing with dif­fer­ent non­tra­di­tion­al seat­ing, he says, like nomad work­ers,” where peo­ple have no fixed desks and just roam around. 

Archi­tects are try­ing all kinds of crazy stuff,” Minor says. There are all kinds of the­o­ries behind it, but so lit­tle research.” 

Featured Faculty

Dylan Minor

Member of the Department of Managerial Economics & Decision Sciences faculty until 2018

About the Writer

Emily Stone is the senior research editor at Kellogg Insight.

About the Research

Housman, Michael, and Dylan Minor. 2016. “Organizational Design and Space: The Good, the Bad, and the Productive.” Working paper.

Read the original

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