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Should companies micromanage where you sit?

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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 boost productivity and collaboration. Wall Street Journal reports.

Aspects of a worker's disposition can be contagious, according to Sigal Barsade of the University of Pennsylvania: “People literally catch emotions from one another like a virus." Here are four states found in offices:

  1. Calm, relaxed ("the California condition”). Employees experience less conflict and feel they perform better. This is the most contagious.
  2. Stressed out, anxious. Frustration, anger and hostility also mark this second-most-contagious state.
  3. Cheerful, high-energy. Workers tend to be more cooperative, but calm or stress trumps cheerful.
  4. Sluggish, low-energy. A dull, lethargic state that workers are least likely to catch from colleagues.

People with similar emotional temperaments work best together, Barsade says, but a stressed-out worker could brighten up when surrounded with lots of cheerful, energetic people. Other times, shuffling people around made workers feel like they have little control over their environment.

Here are what some companies have learned from their musical chair experiments:

  • According to Sociometric Solutions, a worker's immediate neighbors account for 40 to 60 percent of every interaction during the workday, from face-to-face chats to email messages.
  • There’s only a 5 to 10 percent chance employees are interacting with someone two rows away, and workers basically only talk to people on other floors if they have meetings.
  • Research from MIT’s Sloan School of Management found that grouping workers by academic department can foster focus and efficiency, but mixing seating arrangements can lead to innovation.
  • Ad agency MODCo intermingled accountants with media buyers hoping they’d absorb each others' skills. Media buyers began to understand the financial side so well a full accounting department wasn’t needed (saving couple hundred thousand dollars a year).
  • Travel website Kayak.com uses new hires as an excuse to alter the existing layout – taking into account personalities, political views, and propensity for judging tardy colleagues.
  • A “loud” employee dispatched to a “quiet” group helped make the group more vocal after a few weeks.
  • Employees at marketing-software company HubSpot Inc. switched seats randomly every three months to reflect the lack of hierarchy.
  • But when executives were grouped together so they could chat without having to arrange formal meetings, the employees felt the higher-ups were too far removed.

[WSJ]

Image: Stew Dean via Flickr

— By on October 12, 2013, 9:38 AM PST

Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure