If Sitting By High Performers Is All It Takes To Improve, I Want To Sit By Tim Sackett

John Hollon John Hollon, Office Politics

These are the kinds of stories that drive me nuts.

Back in August, The Wall Street Journal published an article with the headline Use Your Seat to Get Ahead at Work, but the REAL news came in the subhead — “Sitting next to a star improves your performance, research shows; finally, something to like about open offices.

Sorry, but in my book there is NOTHING to like about open offices, and unlike so many who sing their praises, I’ve actually worked in a couple and lived to talk about it. And, if sitting by high performers is really all it takes to improve my performance, well, I want to sit next to someone like Tim Sackett.

I’d love to see how much of Sackett rubs off on me.

How much improvement from sitting by a high achiever?

All kidding aside, here’s the crux of the WSJ story:

“Simply sitting next to a high achiever can improve someone’s performance by 3 percent to 16 percent, according to a two-year Northwestern University study of 2,452 help-desk and other client-service workers at a technology company.

The study is the first to tear apart different aspects of performance in an office job and analyze spillover in each.

–Productive employees — those who finished tasks quickly — raised the output of slower colleagues by 8 percent.

–Effective employees, who could handle customers’ problems without referring them to co-workers to finish, lifted their neighbors’ effectiveness by 16 percent.

–Quality workers, who received high ratings on customer surveys, inspired 3 percent improvements in colleagues’ quality ratings, says the study, published last year by the Harvard Business School.”

Of course, there’s a question that probably jumps into your head as fast as it jumps into mine, and it’s this: Won’t seating lesser performers by high performers impact the work quality of the high performers?

Dylan Minor, the lead author of the study and an assistant professor of managerial economics at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School, says no, that the research found that high performers weren’t dragged down by low achievers nearby.

And, the biggest gains for lower performers were with “skills that have no upper limits, such as creativity,” where “sitting elbow-to-elbow with a star may spark bigger gains.”

But what happens when you sit by a lesser performer?

This all sounds wonderful, and of course, who wouldn’t want to see employees who had their performance improved by sitting next to a better performer? No one that I know. But here’s the rub: I suspect that this Journal story glosses over any negatives that may have popped up in the research. 

As good as the WSJ usually is, there are times when reporting on surveys and studies like this that it sort of cherry picks the stats surrounding the most positive aspects of the study, and in this case of course, those were about how proximity to a high performer can positively impact a lesser performer. 

But, this also works the other way as well , particularly as it relates to what the authors call “toxic” workers. 

I skimmed the actual Harvard Business School paper and here’s one small part from the authors (Michael Housman and Dylan Minor) that jumped out at me:

“We also consider whether these spillover effects extend to negative performance through misconduct and unethical behavior spillovers. In particular, we measure the extent to which a toxic worker — i.e. a worker that harms a firm’s people and/or property — induces spillover from their behavior.

We find that the negative performance of these workers spills over to fellow workers in a process similar to the positive worker spillover … The bad news is that negative spillover effects happen almost immediately (emphasis added). The good news is that the effects vanish within a month of no longer being exposed to the toxic worker.”

So, it’s great to seat higher performers where they can help pull up the work of other who aren’t as good, but whatever you do, don’t put them around somebody who is toxic because it will screw up the high performer “almost immediately.”

That’s a little tidbit The Wall Street Journal article sort of passed over.
The actual focus of the Harvard Business School paper that’s at the root of all this is workplace design, or “how to best physically locate workers within an organization.” And they add, “Overall, workplace space appears to be a resource that firms can use to design more effective organizations.”

The open office goal should be a more effective organization

Yes, the goal should be constructing “more effective organizations,” but that’s generally not the explanation for yet another organization deciding that they need to go to an open seating plan.

Back in 2015, when Facebook decided to go to an open design in their new “office of the future,” somebody wrote that, “open offices are an exercise in frustration and futility — and a test lab for how to put a big dent in worker productivity.”

As this latest study shows, there IS an upside to an open office, but it’s less about being seen as cool and trendy by eliminating private offices and more about how you group your employees, in whatever space you have, to make sure that the better performers help the weaker ones raise their game.

I’m waiting for the next big announcement of a company going to an “open office” plan that spends any time at all talking about THAT.