Career Advice: Where should you sit at work? This is the secret to success, new research suggests

A business woman standing in her office and looking through the window

If you are trying to get ahead at work, you’ve probably already attempted the old standbys, like wowing your boss with fresh ideas and putting in extra hours to prove your dedication. But there’s a different way to fast-track your career — that has nothing to do with how smart you are, how hard you try or how likable you come across: Sitting next to another high-performer.

That’s the key takeaway from a Harvard Business School working paper, which will be submitted to a peer-reviewed journal this month. The researchers found that the “physical location of workers greatly affects performance of peers.” Specifically, if you sit next to a top-achieving colleague, then you are more likely to perform better. Likewise, if you sit next to a toxic worker — defined as someone who ultimately gets fired for harming a firm’s people or property — you’re more likely to see a performance dip.

Assuming many of your coworkers are inspiring, this is a perhaps-surprising upside to the movement toward open office floor plans. And while where you sit is often the luck of the draw, you might have more more leeway than you realize when it comes to surrounding yourself with winners. Full-time employees and freelancers alike can just grab their laptops and head over to collaborative workspaces: Just reach out to your favorite office friends and ask.

The paper also sheds light on exactly which type of high-performing co-workers will be most helpful to you: For optimal results, people with complementary, not identical, skills should be paired together, Dylan Minor, the paper’s co-author and an economist and professor at the Kellogg School of Management, explained in an email interview.

Debunking the “superstar myth”

Top performers, by the paper’s definition, excel in three key areas: productivity, effectiveness and quality. “Effectiveness” includes problem-solving, while “quality” encompasses intangibles like creativity. But few people excel in all three areas. For example, one person may produce top-quality work at a snail’s pace, while another may finish tasks at lightning speed but do a shoddy job.

“Most people think about a superstar on one dimension (e.g., they are really fast, create amazing quality work, or make lots of sales),” said Minor. In reality, “there are not many, if any, that are stars on all dimensions.”

While the absence of all-around superstars runs contrary to the thinking behind many employee-ranking methods, it presents an opportunity for helping workers to improve in areas where they fall short of managers’ expectations. For example, the authors found that placing employees who excel in quality next to those who excel at speed — with average workers paired together as well — led to a 15% overall performance improvement across the organization. “In short, symbiotic relationships are created from pairing those with opposite strengths,” the authors wrote.

Of course, it’s natural to want to sit next to people who are very similar to you. But if you want to get ahead and improve on your weaknesses, that might actually not be the best idea. Instead, find a buddy who is good at what you’re not: You’ll learn from each other — and make a new work ally, of which you can never have too many. “As worker, what you want to do is find people that are good at things that you are not as strong in and that are weaker in your areas of strength,” Minor said. “Together, you will both achieve more.”

Avoid this coworker at all costs

No matter where you sit, it is best to steer clear of toxic co-workers. The paper noted the authors’ previous research found “the magnitude of the effect of a toxic worker vs. a superstar worker is much greater,” meaning, as much as sitting next to an inspiring office pal helps, sitting near a problem coworker hurts more. Out of 2,454 workers studied, 2% (45 people) fell into this category. Not only can a toxic co-worker dampen your morale, they may also increase your chance of getting fired.

Now, the authors acknowledge that their sample of 2,000-some workers at one technology company is limited — and that additional research is needed to add to their findings. What’s more, the paper did not look closely at soft skills, like how well you communicate and get along with others. That’s crucial.

“I believe soft skills are more important than ever,” Minor said. While they affect your effectiveness, the paper didn’t measure them directly.

No matter what your biggest work goals are, check out the Payoff’s career coverage, from how to find the best job for your personality type, to how to reduce work stress and network your way to a new job — to how to improve on both productivity and soft skills... so you end up being the office high-performer that everyone wants to emulate.

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