World Reimagined

Office Happiness can be as Simple as Sitting in the Right Place

People gathering in an office

The transition back to the office is going to be jarring for some people, who have gotten used to their home office set up. And in some cases, the thought of returning is enough to prompt them to look for a new job.

But sometimes a simple change to where you sit can have a significant impact on your quality of life at work. A study by the University College London, published in April, found that choosing the right place to sit can help you be more productive.

While your desk might have been immovable in pre-pandemic days, the office environment is changing. There are likely to be fewer people physically in the office for some time, as companies adopt more flexible schedules. That opens the door for a rearrangement of how desks are positioned.

One trick? Reduce the number of people in your range of sight.

“Having fewer people in sight and feeling more in control of the environment by facing the room resulted in significantly higher odds for positive ratings of focused work and perceived productivity,” the study said.

While it’s wise to have teams facing each other, so they can discuss ideas and share information, too many people in view becomes distracting, says Kerstin Sailer, one of the study’s authors and a UCL researcher who focuses on the impact of spatial design on people and social behaviors in buildings.

“A typical tech company has small team sizes,” she says. “If you have those people around you, that’s great because you need to interact with them. If you have a few others, fine. But there’s a threshold where each additional desk becomes an additional disturbance. It’s overload. You’re not interacting with these people or working with these people, but you’re hearing their phone calls and what they’re having for lunch. It’s information you don’t need.”

It’s not just the number of people in your line of site that impacts productivity. Researchers found that location makes a difference as well. A seat next to the office wall, for instance, was “perceived as less favorable for productive work than a seat next to the window.”

Sailer, though, says the window seat is not necessarily the ideal location. While it certainly proved better than the wall, it didn’t have major productivity advantages over seats at, for instance, the end of a row or corridor.

Too many people in your line of sight might be a drain on productivity, but companies also want to be careful to avoid going too far in the other direction, notes Sailer. Isolating teams to only be with each other inhibits chance encounters, which are essential for creativity, and do away with a greater sense of office team building. Similarly, while too much noise is distracting, too quiet of an environment can be just as bad.

“People are very respectful of others around them - sometimes even overly respectful, to the degree that the floor becomes very quiet,” she says. “When a floor becomes too quiet, it’s almost detrimental because when it gets too quiet, every conversation stands out.”

The UCL study, of course, was done prior to the pandemic, and office habits are likely to shift as companies recall workers. Many employees (and some managers) endorse a hybrid model, with workers splitting their time between the office and working from home.

While that seems a good compromise of the work worlds that most people have experienced in the past two years, it gets a bit murkier when some of the details that will need to be worked out first start to surface. For instance, what are the ratios of employees at home vs at the office? Will the hybrid model be permanent or short term? Will managers value presenteeism at the same level they did in 2019? How do you connect home workers with people in the office without affecting productivity?

“What’s going to be interesting to observe is as people come back, will be we able to capitalize on the sociability of the office and what the office does best, which is bringing us in touch with other people, vs the things we can easily do at home,” says Sailer.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

Other Topics

Culture Careers

Chris Morris

Chris Morris is a veteran journalist with more than 30 years of experience, more than half of which were spent with some of the Internet’s biggest sites, including CNNMoney.com, where he was Director of Content Development, and Yahoo! Finance, where he was managing editor. Today, he writes for dozens of national outlets including Digital Trends, Fortune, and CNBC.com.

Read Chris's Bio