Workplace expert warns of possible impact of new workplace setups on employee productivity

As some workplaces prepare for the gradual return of employees and overhaul office layouts and seating plans, research has shown this could also have implications for employee productivity and company performance.


“We will not be returning to the workplaces as we knew them. But more than just changes in physical workspaces, this could also have a wider effect on how we work. Keeping employees safe and well comes first, but when many businesses are struggling to keep their head above the water, it’s vital to also keep employee performance front of mind,” said Geoffroy de Lestrange, Product Marketing and Communication Director EMEA, Cornerstone OnDemand.
Research performed as a collaboration between Cornerstone OnDemand and researchers at Harvard Business school in 2016 uncovered that where employees sit at work can have a big impact on employees’ performance. When the research was conducted, the analysis showed that placing the right type of workers near to each other can positively affect productivity and has been shown to generate up to a 15 percent increase in organizational performance. With employees now having to keep their distance this could decrease any possible positive effects.
The research, which included analysis of data from more than 2,000 employees over a two-year period provided by a large technology company with locations in the U.S. and Europe, identified three types of workers: Productive, Generalists, and Quality. Seating Productive and Quality workers together and seating Generalists separately in their own group showed a 13 percent gain in productivity and a 17 percent gain ineffectiveness. In short, pairing together employees with opposite strengths has the biggest and most positive impact on performance. Their strengths are little affected but this positively affects performance measures for employees’ weaknesses.
At a time when businesses are under pressure following the Covid-19 pandemic, gains in operational performance will go a long way for recovery. For an organization of 2,000 workers, the analysis showed that strategic seating planning could add up to an estimated $1 million a year to profits, indicating the importance for businesses to still ensure close collaboration between these workers.
“We’ve all become accustomed to collaborating digitally but as we head back into the physical workplace, this will again shift – and people having to keep their distance from one another could impair workplace collaboration. Just because we’re physically in the same room with one another does not automatically mean we’ll be working better and closer together, especially when we have to keep our distance, and businesses will need to keep an eye on that. If employees who positively impact others cannot be seated near to one another, then companies will need to look at other means to ensure they work closely together, continuing to make use of the digital and communication tools used when working at home,” concluded de Lestrange.


A few days after my company moved to work from home due to the Covid-19 pandemic, my boss decided to implement a daily team call via Zoom. Beyond the inherent annoyance associated with a daily hour-long call, I started noticing that I would be in an extreme funk for hours after the meeting. It took a few weeks to realize that I, the sole Black member of my team, was having a much different quarantine experience than my co-workers. For them, it seemed to be a minor inconvenience. Some people talked about the upside of having more time to spend with family due to the elimination of their commute. Another person shared a special hack for finding Instacart delivery windows. I was somehow added to both a recipe and a poetry chain letter.
In contrast, I was counseling friends who were dealing with infected relatives or losing loved ones to Covid-19. At the end of March, a good friend lost a fraternity brother who visited three different emergency rooms before being given a test. I woke up on my birthday, in late April, to discover that someone I had followed and interacted with for years on Twitter had also died from the virus. I also worried about my relatives in the South who were living in states where governors were being more lax with shelter-in-place orders.
My feelings were validated when data on who was being most affected by Covid-19 started being released. According to CDC data on Covid-19 hospitalizations during March, 33% of hospitalized patients were Black, despite only being 18% of the surveyed population. In a May poll released by ABC News, 30% of Black respondents reported personally knowing someone who died from Covid-19, compared to only 10% of White respondents.
Each week, I would log on to my computer feeling more and more detached from the cheery demeanors looking back at me. Then, news of the killings started happening.
In Georgia, Ahmaud Arbery had been killed in February by two White men who decided that he fit the profile of a burglary suspect and enacted their own vigilante justice by chasing Arbery down and trapping him while he tried to escape. In Louisville, Breonna Taylor, a paramedic, had been shot and killed in her own home by police officers using a no-knock warrant in March. Everything combusted in May after video footage was released showing Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin placing his knee on George Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes while Floyd repeatedly stated that he couldn’t breathe. This past weekend in Atlanta, police shot Rayshard Brooks in the back and killed him after not allowing him to just walk to his sister’s home after failing a field sobriety test in a Wendy’s drive-thru.
I felt the grief and trauma of those amassed losses. But my White colleagues did not.
Divisions in the office are not new. In a study published in January 2020, 30% of Black respondents reported feeling alienated at work. But the combination of the pandemic and police brutality that no one can turn away from has widened and magnified the divide. “You have Black professionals who are personally witnessing the devastating effects of inequity that then have to interact with companies, organizations, and institutions that are not equipped to address the fears, stress and trauma that Black employees are experiencing,” explains Kevin Simon, a psychiatrist and clinical fellow at Harvard Medical School.
I remember crying in my office the day after Dylann Roof killed nine Black people during Bible study. I took a personal day in July 2016 when Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed by police on back-to-back days. But now, due to continuing stay-at-home orders, I can’t engage in my normal forms of self-care, such as meeting up with friends for happy hour or commiserating with other Black employees at the office. Even my weekly therapy sessions feel less potent in the absence of an in-person exchange. I, along with many others, am also worried about job security since Covid-19 has led to layoffs and furloughs. As a result, I feel extra pressure to be productive so I don’t lose my job.
In addition to my grief, there is anger. The reason I’m trapped in my home is that a significant portion of White people was so incensed by Barack Obama’s presidency, they decided to vote for an unqualified reality television star to lead the country, resulting in more than 100,000 deaths from Covid-19. It’s also sickening to see that White supremacy and police violence are so ingrained in this country’s DNA that not even a global pandemic could grant us a reprieve from state-sanctioned violence against Black people.
Finally, unlike other incidents of police violence, because everyone is stuck at home, this moment has seized the country’s attention. This means that our collective grief is more subject to the White gaze. I used to yearn for an acknowledgment from White co-workers and friends about these kinds of events, but now I’m overwhelmed by their check-ins or their desire to be educated on what can be done to solve systemic racism. There’s no way to feel united when we have a team meeting to discuss current events and I’m the only Black person in the room. I also have to watch as corporations with zero Black executives in their C-suite or those that refuse to pay a living wage to engage in hypocrisy by stating Black lives matter.
Simon has a few tips for individuals looking to protect their mental health while navigating current events. The first is to try to establish a balance between work, life, and media. “Set a limit on the workday. When you’re off, be off, and that includes not checking email. And find some time to not check social media or the news and enjoy a personal activity,” he says.
He further recommends adopting a mindfulness practice. “This will help you to gain more clarity around when you’re feeling stressed, what is triggering those feelings, and how to deal with it productively,” he says. Simon also emphasizes the importance of sleep: “During stressful times, rest is often the first area affected, but a lack of sleep puts you at risk for worsening anxiety, depression, and decreased concentration.”
Despite incorporating all these practices into my daily routine, I still find myself going through a cycle of emotions. The one that dominates the most is uncertainty. I want to believe that this moment is a reckoning, but I also worry that after a few weeks of protest, people will go back to business as usual. But I also don’t know how things can go back to normal when so much ugliness has been exposed.
My main way of coping is to try to figure out one thing I can do every day to be impactful. Some days that means donating to a bail fund or my local food bank. Other days it means strategizing with other Black attorneys on how to improve our workplaces.
There’s no road map for getting out of a situation like this, but I can at least try to steer things toward a better direction.