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Where you sit at work matters

Professor Christopher Liu’s research provides some important considerations on how organizations can go about creating functional spaces that benefit individuals and the broader business.

Ask anyone who works in an office: where you sit matters. It’s a far greater issue than wanting the quietest space or the cubicle closest to the kitchen — the location of your desk can impact the connections you make and the type of network you develop, says Christopher Liu, a professor of Strategic Management at Rotman.

“Just looking at the popularity of Facebook and LinkedIn today, we know that networking is important. But there are also passive connections that form in the workplace,” explains Liu. “Organizations need to pay attention to the types of opportunities they create for people to interact.”

The challenge of designing a functional workspace that supports efficiency and easy communication is an old concept. In the early 20th century, for instance, automotive manufacturers organized workers into assembly lines. And offices in the last century would set up typing pools and executive suites so that individuals with similar roles would sit together.


“Just looking at the popularity of Facebook and LinkedIn today, we know that networking is important. But there are also passive connections that form in the workplace.”

-Christopher Liu, Assistant Professor, Strategic Management


But the way we do business has changed: today, we rely heavily on email, collaborate more frequently with coworkers from different departments and demand greater transparency from leadership. As a result, it’s worth taking a closer look at how we think about setting up offices. And Liu’s research provides some important considerations on how organizations can go about creating functional spaces that benefit individuals and the broader business.

Most of Liu’s insights on workplace geography have come from closely examining the interactions and behaviours of U.S. senators, a group that constantly needs to make and leverage connections in order to advance political agendas and introduce new legislation.

In one study, which was published in the Strategic Management Journal, Liu and former Strategic Management PhD student Jillian Chown, who is now an Assistant Professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, analyzed 20 years of data tracking where senators were seated in the Senate Chamber. The authors also examined the bills these senators sponsored, their level of experience, their party affiliations and other attributes.

Not surprisingly, the duo found that influential and tenured senators were often able to garner support for new bills they introduced, regardless of where they were seated in the Senate Chamber. However, less-influential senators tended to rely on support from those seated close to them. In other words, for politicians with less power, where they sat mattered. And this trend could have direct applications in how to organize corporate settings, says Liu.

“It inherently makes sense. You’re more likely to develop a healthy rapport with coworkers you see often, and they will be more likely to offer a helping hand,” he explains.

Offices should consider grouping employees that work on similar projects near each other so that they can support each other more easily.

On the other hand, seating colleagues with opposing personalities or views closer together could actually drive them further apart. In a separate study, published in the American Sociological Review, Liu examined the interactions and voting behaviours of senators over a 36-year period. Though politically like-minded senators were more likely to develop similar attitudes and voting behaviours the more they worked together, he found the opposite effect for senators with opposing viewpoints.


“Organizations need to pay attention to the types of opportunities they create for people to interact.”

-Christopher Liu, Assistant Professor, Strategic Management


“Proximity doesn’t necessarily make for better connections and stronger social ties. Constantly seeing and butting heads with someone you do not agree with will probably just remind you of your differences.”

Instead, he advises organizations to think carefully about how to bring different departments, with different priorities, together when collaborating on projects.

“Choose one or two representatives from each department and have them discuss their individual objectives and create a central goal, together.”

Though it can be tempting to try out new trends — such as ‘hot-desking’, creating open-concept spaces and encouraging remote work — it’s important to consider how employees get work done and what resources they need.

It’s hard to design environments that spur optimal productivity, but, in general, density and diversity are key, he says.

“You shouldn’t be sitting next to people who are exactly like you or totally different,” he says. “You should feel like you are surrounded by coworkers that work on projects similar to yours, but might have different skills or perspectives that you could learn from.”


Written by Rebecca Cheung

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