Productivity rises when employees who need to collaborate sit together

For important and urgent tasks, sitting next to each other leads to more productive work
- Dr Jordi Blanes i Vidal

People who need to work in close collaboration are more productive when sitting next to each other rather than hot-desking or working remotely, according to a study from LSE and University of Edinburgh.

Researchers studied the Operational Control Room of Greater Manchester Police, where 999 calls are answered and processed. Each call is the responsibility of two workers who need to communicate fast and precisely.

The setting, although uncommon as workplaces go, was ideal as a way of comparing the productivity levels of those who sit next to their colleagues - or at least physically near them - and those who work remotely. This was because, at times, colleagues from the Operation Control Room worked remotely with each other, while at other times were in the same physical space, sometimes sitting next to each other.

Researchers found that for the average call, teams were about 2% more productive when they worked in the same physical space as each other. But for very urgent incidents, the effect was much larger - they were about 10% more efficient.

Strong bonds between colleagues also helped boost productivity. When colleagues had worked with each other in the past or were of the same age or gender, for example, they handled the calls more quickly and more effectively, the study found.

The research, published in the Review of Economic Studies, also discovered that small distances, even within a room, matter a great deal. Colleagues who sat next to each other worked much more effectively than those who were at the opposite ends of a big room.

One of the co-authors, Dr Jordi Blanes i Vidal, Associate Professor of Managerial Economics and Strategy in LSE’s Department of Management, said: “Clearly something is lost when we interact remotely with our teammates. The question is whether this cost is worth paying.

“Our research suggests that for important and urgent tasks, sitting next to each other leads to more productive work. Being in the same building, however, is not enough as the benefits of face-to-face communication operate only at relatively small distances.

“Organisations should be very aware of who sits next to whom as the benefits of co-location are stronger for teammates who’ve previously worked together. They should also be cautious of over-using hot-desking arrangements, as switching neighbours constantly can prevent the strong bonds that make communication and productivity more effective.”

Face-to-Face Communication in Organizations is by Diego Battiston (University of Edinburgh & LSE), Jordi Blanes i Vidal (LSE) & Tom Kirchmaier (LSE) and published in The Review of Economic Studies.