Illustration: Ashley Siebels
One of the quietly fraught aspects of both modern offices and high school lunchrooms is this: where will you sit?
Studies show that office seat mates affect every employees’ mood, productivity and even health. From loud talkers to constantly-sick viral incubators to the office humorist and beloved work spouse, proximity through seating is a quiet key for office morale.
One startup is going the extra mile not to mess it up. Mobile payments startup Square is making the art of office seating arrangements a full-time job. Dubbed a “Capacity Coordinator” in the job posting, this position is “equal parts project manager, data analyst, and relationship builder.”
Not only will the new “Capacity Coordinator” be handling where new hires sit and moving teams, he or she will also be working on “cross-functional seating projects” and maintaining office furniture, among other things. We’ve reached out to Square for comment.
A manager dedicated to seating plans at the office isn’t necessarily far-fetched. In fact, it fits into a larger conversation about how much nearby colleagues — well as the layout of the space— can impact employees’ productivity.
‘Emotional contagion’ and the personality match
Getting the right fit between personalities at work almost requires its own technology. When trying to get your work done, you probably pick up on the vibes of the person sitting next to you.
A 2002 study published in Administrative Science Quarterly found that “people do not live on emotional islands but, rather, that group members experience moods at work, these moods ripple out and, in the process, influence not only other group members’ emotions but their group dynamics and individual cognitions, attitudes, and behaviors as well.”
How workers feel can make waves on your team, and influence how others feel and work together. The 2002 study calls a person or group impacting the feelings or actions of others “emotional contagion.”
The most surprising part: scientific studies have shown there is a financial and organizational benefit from well-arranged seating at work.
Cornerstone OnDemand and Harvard Business School partnered up on research that determined the ideal seating arrangement, based on workers’ productivity levels.
The study matched “productive” workers (“very productive but lack in quality”) and “quality” workers (“produce superior quality but lack in productivity”) together. It said that “generalists” (“average” in quality and productivity) should be matched separately, and that “symbiotic relationships are created from pairing those with opposite strengths.”
“According to the findings, placing the right type of workers in close proximity to each other has been shown to generate up to a 15% increase in organizational performance. For an organization of 2,000 workers, strategic seating planning could add an estimated $1 million per annum to profit,” the study said.
There might just be a formula for this after all.
Open office backlash
Workspace layout matters because open offices don’t always make for greater productivity, despite their popularity.
An anonymous survey of more than 1,000 people by enterprise software strategist William Belk found that 58% of “high-performance employees” “need more private spaces for problem solving,” and 54% of them think their office space is “too distracting,” according to a post on Medium.
But research says that our productivity goes down by 15%, we’re two times as likely to get sick and that it’s hard to focus in open offices, according to the BBC. Open offices are also stressful for introverts, who feel a need to limit their exposure to others in order to be more creative.
That’s why many startups have a variety of areas in which to work, including pods, quiet rooms, and other escape spaces. Lunchrooms, cafes and other food spaces make it less likely that people will eat at their desks, distracting colleagues with smells and chewing sounds. (Yes, some people are naturally sensitive to loud chewing.)
“People have different needs throughout their day — times they want to collaborate and times where they just need to think by themselves,” Groove CEO Ethan Giffin told The Huffington Post.
The company’s “new office” (as of a few years ago) was built with a library featuring “an unspoken ‘no-talking’ rule” and other places to work that were smaller and more “private,” according to The Huffington Post.
We look forward to the popularization of a personality-matched office that welcomes both extroverts and introverts — and has plenty of nap pods, besides.