The 5-minute change that could make your team more productive

To boost your team's performance, seat less effective team members near your star employee, according to a two-year study by Northwestern University (NU).

Researchers analyzed personnel files, engagement surveys, seating arrangements, and customer satisfaction reports of more than 2,000 help-desk and client-service employees at a technology firm, writes Sue Shellenbarger for the Wall Street Journal.

According to the study, sitting an employee who works at a slower pace next to one who finishes tasks quickly raised the slower employee's output by 8%. Similarly, effective employees, who resolve tasks on their own, lifted a nearby coworker's effectiveness by 16%. Lastly, quality employees, who receive high customer-satisfaction ratings, increased their neighbor's customer-satisfaction ratings by 3%.

At least one previous study has found similar results. Cashiers who worked near a star co-worker's watchful eye improved their own performance, according to a 2009 study from Princeton University.

The reason for the boost isn't entirely clear, but researchers have hypotheses. When working close to a high achiever, employees may fear being ostracized, reported to management, or just want to be liked, says the lead author of the Princeton study, Alexandre Mas.

Dylan Minor, assistant professor of managerial economics at NU, attributes the increase in employee productivity to a combination of inspiration and peer pressure. Low achievers, on the other hand, did not decrease the productivity of nearby high performers, notes Minor.

Is higher ed ready for open office designs?

Positive spillover may spark even bigger gains when applied to skills with no upper bounds, like creativity, says Minor. As such, you might consider placing two high performing workers near each other to magnify the effect.

For example, when Hoon Oh started at Allen & Gerritsen, he immediately "started riffing off" ideas with his colleague Hilary Sedgwick, she says. Soon, the two creative directors moved their desks across the office to sit next to each other. According to their boss, Jennifer Putnam, the new seating arrangement lets the two passionate workers teach each other and the team.

Other managers sit new employees next to high performers as a "form of orientation," says Dan Finnigan, CEO of Jobvite. But he notes that even more tenured employees gravitate to those who have "extra juice, or the greatest insights," he says. Star employees have such a strong pull that "you can almost see the pathways on the floor," says Finnigan (Shellenbarger, Wall Street Journal, 8/11).

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