Jeffrey Pfeffer tells a powerful story of a manager who attributes his success to his decision of where to sit.
…After carefully studying the facility layouts, the new director of engineering decided not to occupy his office in the so-called Executive Row. He noted that during the course of the day, people walked to the cafeteria and to the washrooms. He found where the two paths tended to intersect, near the center of the open plan office layout, and took that position as his work location. He attributes much of his subsequent success to that simple move, since it gave him much better access to what was going on in his department. He could keep on top of projects, answer informal questions, and in general, exercise much more influence over the activities of the unit than he could had he been cut off by himself.
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You may have more control over where you sit than you think you do. When you start a new job, for example, you may be given the opportunity to pick between various offices, cubicles or desks. Or you might have the choice of which floor to be on. Even if you don’t, you can request to be relocated when a vacancy opens up. Consider traffic patterns and identify the natural crossroads. You may also consider where others are sitting, and take a place in the vicinity of those whom you would like to meet. Proximity is a big determinant of interaction.
Steve Jobs put the same principle into action when the Pixar offices were designed. He wanted people from different departments to interact in order to spur creativity. How do you do this?
If you get a chance to visit Pixar’s studio in Oakland, California, the first thing you will see upon entering the building is the atrium— its design is meant to create serendipity. Jonah Lehrer wrote in the New Yorker that “the original architectural plan called for three buildings, with separate offices for the computer scientists, the animators, and the Pixar executives. Jobs immediately scrapped it. Instead of three buildings, there was going to be a single vast space, with an airy atrium at its center.” But a big space in the center is not enough— you need to actually get people to go there.“Steve Jobs wanted people to meet,” Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar, explained to me at the Pixar campus. “He made sure of that by making the atrium the center of the building. And then he made sure everyone had to go there.” So the mailboxes, the meeting rooms, the cafeteria, the coffee bar, and the gift shop are all in the atrium. Lehrer writes that “as he [Jobs] saw it, the main challenge for Pixar was getting its different cultures to work together, forcing the computer geeks and cartoonists to collaborate… What Steve realized was that when people run into each other, when they make eye contact, things happen.”
Nice stories, right? Does research back this up as one of the networking tips you should implement? Absolutely.
You think you choose your friends based on similar interests and yadda-yadda-yadda. What’s more important? Proximity.
At the start, the hundreds of Westgate and Westgate West residents are strangers. Who becomes friends? Using sociometric survey techniques…the researchers found out. Later in the academic year, they asked each resident, “What three people in Westgate or Westgate West do you see most socially?” Now, you might suppose that friendships develop around common interests, similarities in background, and the like. As it turns out, however, the accident of physical proximity explained just about everything. From the researchers’ report:
The most striking item was the dependence of friendship formation on the mere physical arrangement of the houses. People who lived close to one another became friendly with each other, while people who lived far apart did not. Mere “accidents” of where a path went or whose doorway a staircase passed were major determinants of who became friends within this community. The small face-to-face social groups which formed were, to a large extent, determined by the fact that a number of people lived in the same apartment building or in the same court.
Don’t neglect the simple things. Where you sit can make a big difference.