A recent Harvard Business Review article provided the analysis on a research study conducted by Jason Corsello and Dylan Minor into potential benefits of strategic colocation.
Managers usually collocate staff by role, by job level or by project team but rarely is individual capability factored into this decision making.
The authors’ research showed that pairing a fast worker with a slower one appeared to speed up the productivity of slow worker rather than slowing down the faster one. Similar pairing highly productive staff who did lower quality work with those that were slower but produced higher quality outcomes resulted in improvements in both the productivity of the slower workers and quality in the sloppier ones.
These performance gains only appeared to be achieved when the workers were sitting very close together and distances of 25 or 50 feet did not reveal the same improvements. Neighbors, it appears, really do make a difference!
On a more concerning note, the research supported the old adage of one bad apple spoiling the barrel. Close proximity to workers who exhibited toxic behaviors resulted in normal workers sitting with them picking up their bad habits.
This will come as no surprise to elementary school teachers who are used to reseating students based on classroom behavior or aptitude.
But how can this help improve our projects?
Project managers should look for signs of chronic toxic behavior and not procrastinate in addressing it. The longer they wait, the greater the likelihood that this behavior will infect other team members. In those extreme cases where a particular worker is critical to the success of the project but is consistently toxic, separating them from others on the team might be the best option.
Early in the life of a project expectations should also be set with team members that seating arrangements are fluid. This will reduce the likelihood that staff will complain about being relocated once a better understanding of their strengths and weaknesses has been gained.
Once a project manager has learned which of their team members are the most productive or produce the highest quality deliverables, they can then decide whether pairing them up with slower or lower quality team members might improve overall project performance.
Such decisions should never be made lightly as individual personality traits, existing relationships as well as organization and team culture could produce unintended consequences after making such changes, but with a bit of luck a rising tide might raise all ships!