Workers love to hate open-office plans, with the wall-less work spaces blamed for everything from noise distraction to higher stress.
Despite the grumbling, the approach is likely here to stay given that about 70 percent of offices around the U.S. now seat workers in open seating arrangements, according to the International Facility Management Association. One reason may be that it costs less to put workers closer together. New research also suggests that open offices can boost productivity, an advantage many companies are likely missing out on.
The question of how open office seating can impact performance was looked at by researchers at Harvard Business School and services company Cornerstone OnDemand (CSOD), which studied two years of data from an unnamed technology company with 2,000 workers. The ideal situation? Rather than providing workers with more space, companies were better off pairing workers according to complementary skills, the researchers found.
The study found three types of workers: Those who are productive (they finish tasks quickly); those who are slower but produce high-quality work; and employees in the middle, whom the researchers called generalists.
The researchers also noted an interesting pattern. When productive workers were paired with quality counterparts, their overall output rose significantly. Quality increased by about 1 percent and speed of work by 13 percent, while the percentage of unfinished work fell 17 percent. Generalists, meanwhile, were best off if they were seated together.
The research may help companies "to operate smarter and more efficient, even when it comes to deciding who sits where at work," said Jason Corsello, senior vice president of strategy and corporate development for Cornerstone OnDemand, in a statement.
This type of seating arrangement may not be common, however. Employers first tend to group workers by function, such as seating customer service representatives together. The technology firm in the study told the researchers that the seating of any particular worker is "pretty random," which is common with many other companies, according to the paper.
"Until now, not much has been explored [regarding] how the physical location of an employee and proximity to others can impact their productivity and performance," Dylan Minor, visiting assistant professor for Harvard Business School and one of the researchers, said in the statement. He added that rearranging seating can be done "relatively inexpensively, and it should be viewed as an important resource in increasing the returns to human capital."
If there's a dark side to the research, it lies with its findings about toxic coworkers. While seating faster workers next to employees who emphasize quality leads to stronger performance, a reverse effect is noted when it comes to bad behavior, they found. Workers who engage in misconduct or unethical behavior can rub off on their nearby co-workers, similar to how positive work traits can spill over to coworkers, the researchers noted.
"The bad news is that negative spillover effects happen almost immediately," the report found. "The good news is that the effects vanish within a month of no longer being exposed to the toxic worker."
The researchers concluded, "This suggests that it is urgent for management to address toxicity once discovered."