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It almost seems too good to be true. According to a recent Northwestern University study of more than 2,400 employees at a certain tech firm, when low performing employees sit near high performing employees, the low performers improve their performance by up to 16 percent.
Productive employees—those who finished tasks quickly—raised the output of slower colleagues by 8%. Effective employees, who could handle customers’ problems without referring them to co-workers to finish, lifted their neighbors’ effectiveness by 16%. Quality workers, who received high ratings on customer surveys, inspired 3% improvements in colleagues’ quality ratings, says the study, published last year by the Harvard Business School.
The reasons why low performers improve likely has to do with a few things: 1) they mimic the good work habits of the high performers, 2) they interact with the high performers and thus learn from them, and 3) they listen to high peformers work (say, on a sales call) and lift language and mannerisms that will, in turn, help themselves to perform better.
Note that sitting as close as possible to a high performer will likely be to your advantage. And even if you work remotely, you can (and should) take advantage of this effect.
For skills that have no upper limits, such as creativity, sitting elbow-to-elbow with a star may spark bigger gains, Dr. Minor says. People who are working from home or on the road might find a Starbucks and surround themselves with caffeinated high achievers.
Also important in the study (you can read it in its entirety here) was the finding that the high performers were not brought down by low performers sitting near them. Which has significant implications for managers, who shouldn't take these findings lightly. As the study points out, physical space is "relatively inexpensive for companies to manage," so managers should consider sitting a new employee next to one of their top performers, or moving long-time employees around if they need a little reboot (that is, a boot in the backside).
As for employees looking to draft off of high performers, while it's not exactly recommended to go to your manager and say, "I've been giving it a lot of thought, and I think I'd really work a lot more efficiently if I were sitting next to [Ms. High Performer] and learn from her," it is recommended that if there's ever a chance to move closer to a high performer (say, a colleague leaves the company, leaving a vacant desk near or close to a high performer), it'll be in your best interest to try your best to take it.
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