Improving Office Productivity via Musical Chairs

By shifting employees from desk to desk every few months, scattering those who do the same types of jobs and rethinking which departments to place side by side, companies say they can increase productivity and collaboration. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Proponents say such experiments not only come with a low price tag, but they can help a company’s bottom line, even if they leave a few disgruntled workers in their wake.

In recent years, many companies have moved toward open floor plans and unassigned seating, ushering managers out of their offices and clustering workers at communal tables. But some companies—especially small startups and technology businesses—are taking the trend a step further, micromanaging who sits next to whom in an attempt to get more from their employees.

“If I change the [organizational] chart and you stay in the same seat, it doesn’t have very much of an effect,” says Ben Waber , chief executive of Sociometric Solutions, a Boston company that uses sensors to analyze communication patterns in the workplace. “If I keep the org chart the same but change where you sit, it is going to massively change everything.”

Mr. Waber says a worker’s immediate neighbors account for 40% to 60% of every interaction that worker has during the workday, from face-to-face chats to email messages. There is only a 5% to 10% chance employees are interacting with someone two rows away, according to his data, which is culled from companies in the retail, pharmaceutical and finance industries, among others.

Want to befriend someone on another floor? Forget it. “You basically only talk to [those] people if you have meetings,” Mr. Waber says.

Some psychological effect is at play here:

Aspects of a worker’s disposition can, in fact, be contagious, according to Sigal Barsade , a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “People literally catch emotions from one another like a virus,” she says. Her research has found that the least-contagious emotional state is one marked by low-energy and sluggishness. The most contagious is a calm, relaxed state—which she nicknamed “the California condition.”

People with similar emotional temperaments work best together, Ms. Barsade says. But if a manager is trying to get a stressed-out worker to brighten up, the best strategy is to surround her with lots of cheerful, energetic people.

I think all corporations (not just start-ups) should be paying attention to this research.

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