I’m Glad That I Don’t Work in an Open Office Environment

According to an article in the WSJ, recent research seems to indicate that people who sit closer to a star performer at work are likely to show improved performance.

According to a two-year Northwestern University study of 2,452 help-desk and other client-service workers at a technology company, simply sitting next to a high achiever can improve someone’s performance by 3% to 16%.

Dan Finnigan, CEO of Jobvite, a San Mateo, Calif., recruiting-software company, often seats new employees next to a high achiever. He has noticed engineers gravitating toward their strongest co-workers, or those with the freshest skills. “You can pretty quickly figure out who’s got the extra juice, or the greatest insight. People are drawn to it. You can almost see the pathways on the floor,” Mr. Finnigan says.

My fear would be that nobody would be drawn to my desk, and if there were any pathways, they would be leading away from my desk. It would be demoralizing to be sitting in this big open office environment, and see everyone gathered at one person’s desk, while I just sit there checking Facebook.

The good news from my perspective is that another study has shown high performers weren’t dragged down by low achievers nearby, according to  Dr. Minor, an assistant professor of managerial economics at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School.

In other words the habits of a low performing employee are not contagious, but the habits of a superstar employee can be successfully transmitted, without even having to touch each other.

People have strong opinions about open office work environments, some claiming that such layouts increase collaboration and creativity, while others say such floor plans lead to more distractions and lower productivity.

For the vast majority of my career (31 years out of 32), I’ve had a private office. Perhaps that’s the nature of higher ed; students likely prefer the privacy of such an office layout, instead of having to share their stories of woe in an open office environment.

It’s funny that in academia, at least business school academia, we are always urging people and companies to be innovative, and yet we ourselves as an industry are among the least innovative.

I would be curious to see what would happen if colleges adopted an open office floor plan for faculty.

But based on the research noted above, my fear would once again be that no one would want to be near my desk, despite the fact that I do take a shower every day.


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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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