Where you sit in the workplace will have a direct and measurable impact on your productivity. In fact, according to a study described in the Harvard Business Review[i] (HBR), moving employees between teams and workstations increased sales revenue an average of 40%. Changes to employee’s physical space had a greater impact than incentives or increases in fixed wages. Also, the impact of such relocation happened quickly over the 80-day relocation period.
Additionally, according to HBR, an MIT study from the 1970s showed the dramatic improvement in communication that occurred after a seating rearrangement, and a 2015 study demonstrated that being in close proximity within Senate chambers resulted in an increased likelihood of supporting the legislation of chamber-mates, regardless of party affiliation.[ii] Seating arrangements can also significantly improve the performance of juries. For this reason, Professor Sunwolf, a social scientist who studies jury performance, suggests that justice is best served when jury box seating arrangements are changed periodically during long trials.
So, what’s going on here? How is it that something as seemly simply as seating arrangements have such a profound impact on group and team performance? Perhaps the first to study group choice and the way people perform in groups was J.L. Moreno, a psychiatrist born in the late 19th century. Dr. Moreno lived in Vienna and was a colleague of Sigmund Freud. One of Moreno’s great contribution to the social sciences was his development of sociometry, which is the study of individual choice and how such choice impacts group performance. During his early work with war refugees, and later at the reform school and in the prisons, Moreno began to develop and refine his theories of sociometry, one of the foundations of the philosophy of psychodrama.
Sociometry is a social science largely developed by Moreno and refined and further developed by others, that seeks to measure and map social choice. As human beings we are all constantly making choices, such as with whom to spend time with, marry, befriend, and even sit next to at a business meeting or even on the bus. Sociometry explores the existence of these connections within groups and offers various interventions that can be used to modify, rearrange, and improve the sociometry. To say improve in this context means to change the sociometry in the group to make that group more effective at meeting its central agreed-upon task.
After emigrating to the United States, Moreno had the opportunity to work with Jennings to explore, map and modify the sociometry at a New York Reform Girl’s school. The residents at the reform school had all been sent there, away from their pre-existing social atoms (network of social connections each of us has, with us at center, and auxiliaries at various distances close or near, in relation to the significance of the connection), to form new social atoms at the school. When he arrived, the school was having a raft of run-aways, and part of the task assigned to Moreno and Jennings was to explore why this might be true, and to try to remedy it. Moreno explored the sociometry in the school, and eventually offered the girls the opportunity to decide with whom they wanted to live, work and recreate. Moreno used the number of run-aways as his key performance indicator, and sure enough, post sociometric intervention, the numbers of run-ways decreased quite dramatically.
In the workplace, seating arrangements impact group performance in many ways. We tend to become bonded with the people we sit with, and this physical proximity often translates into feelings of trust. We begin to share more openly with our partner, to the exclusion of others in the group. This can lead to an “us vs. them” feeling, where the partners begin to share criticisms of others in the group, including the group leader. This can develop into a resistance to follow the directives of the leader and can thwart team performance and productivity. It can also lead to a limited exchange of information and ideas. As the HBR article notes: “once you’ve learned enough about the area you specialize in, exposure to new people will make you more creative. In particular, physical proximately promotes trust and the exchange of valuable and novel knowledge between two newly met peers.”
A similar thing happens in the jury deliberation room. Pairs created by seating assignments will deliberate first with each other before deliberating more broadly with the group. If an influential pair gets a critical fact wrong this can throw the verdict. The jury gets it wrong second because the influential pair got it wrong first.
In the workplace, a sociometrist can measure the connections between workplace teams and groups and can then suggest interventions to positively modify these connections. Also, various sociometric methods and techniques can be used within a group to make the connections more uniform and to increase group safety and trust. It is a basic sociometry precept that there is a direct correlation between the trust in a group and the performance of the group.
The business consultant trained in sociometry can bring this knowledge to the workplace and use it to modify the connections between groups and teams. These low-cost modifications have the potential to dramatically improve workplace productivity and overall worker satisfaction.
[i] Why You Should Rotate Office Seating Assignments, Harvard Business Review, March-April 2018.