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The Ideal Office Floor Plan, According to Science

Where you sit matters.

The open office plan that everybody loves to hate is here to stay. The ideal seating plan still involves sitting almost on top of your co-workers, according to new research from Harvard Business School in collaboration with Cornerstone OnDemand. What changes, however, is who exactly sits next to whom. 

For two years, researchers followed the seating arrangements and output of 2,000 workers at an unidentified technology company, measuring the proximity and productivity of the participants by looking at how quickly they completed tasks. The denser an area is with productive people, the better it was for a nearby worker's productivity, effectiveness, and quality of work, the research found.1 

The converse also holds true for sitting near "toxic" workers, or people who break the rules at work. The researchers call this the "spillover effect"—people at nearby desks rub off on each other, in both good and bad ways. Workers can't be too far away for this to work: The effect diminishes outside a 25-foot radius.

The open office plan caught on as a way to kick-start creativity and productivity. In the knowledge economy, placing people in close proximity leads to more idea sharing, or so the theory goes. The success of such companies as Google and Pixar was, in part, attributed to their "collaborative" office spaces. "This [study] is very consistent with that idea," said researcher Dylan Minor, a visiting assistant professor at Harvard. "Those within a reasonable space indeed have quite an effect on those around them." 

Yet people hate open offices. To some it's an obvious ploy by companies to cram more people into tighter quarters and save money. For others, it's just plain distracting, disruptive, and stressful. One review of more than 100 studies found that despite some benefits, open offices hurt workers' attention spans, productivity, and creativity. 

The problem might be that we simply aren't doing open offices right.

To optimize efficiency, companies should seat employees according to the type of worker they are, the HBS research found. The researchers identified two types of people: high-productivity employees who generally produce lower-quality work and slower people who generate high-quality work. The two types of people have a spillover effect on each other, but only in a positive way, the study found. The productive people made the slow people faster, without compromising quality. And the high-quality producers similarly rubbed off on the high-speed workers. Even if those workers move or leave the company, the effects of their skills last for an additional month or so, the study found. 

"This suggests an opportunity," said Minor. Companies should use the resulting social pressure to get the most out of employees, mixing the two types of workers in the office seating chart. "You can pair some workers of different strengths and you're not going to destroy those strengths," added Minor.

The unidentified technology company the researchers worked with has already started implementing some of these findings. If it's as successful as Google, we might all start shuffling around based on our skill sets. So get a good pair of headphones: The open office plan isn't going away soon. 

(Updates first paragraph with details of the research.)

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  1. 1 One standard deviation increase in density results in an 8 percent increase in the productivity measure.