Where's the best place to work to be more productive? The answer is with your back to the wall--literally. Known as a 'ninja-proof-seat,' the idea is that we're most comfortable and productive when we have a good view of our surroundings and feel safe that no one is likely to sneak up on us from behind.
That's according to an article at Psychology Today by Lily Bernheimer, the author of The Shaping of Us, where she says that "we can actually concentrate better on our work and demonstrate increased cognitive performance in ninja-proof seats."
You can probably relate--no one likes the feeling that someone is lurking behind them, and I've never met anyone who loves being surprised by someone who walks up on them unnoticed. That's why, in addition to having our back against a wall, people tend to prefer the ability to look out a window, not just to catch a glimpse of the pretty scenery, but to keep an eye out for anything that might approach.
Sure, we've long moved past the days when we hunkered in the back of a cave to protect ourselves from being attacked by a bear or lion from behind. But, as humans, the desire to control our surroundings and keep an eye on any potential threats (or even distractions) remains, and has a real effect on the way we work.
Citing the work of geographer Jay Appleton, Bernheimer says that "these evolutionary preferences were major factors in determining the environments humans have historically selected for settlement," which has real implications for how we work.
Bernheimer also says that similar research shows that "workers with a pleasant view have been found to be 6-12 percent more productive than workers without one." Of course, it's not practical to build offices with desks all backed against a wall with perfect views out a window. In reality, however, most workers have a stronger preference for one over the other.
Still, there's a real lesson here for your business, especially if you're thinking of going all-in on an open floor plan with desks and tables arranged in the middle of a vast open space. As you think about how to make your team more productive, here are a few things to keep in mind:
Not everyone works the same.
Instead of assuming that one form of workspace works for everyone, pay attention to what makes your team the most comfortable and able to get work done. Consider the fact that some people will work better in a nook or private area with seating against a wall, while others thrive near windows.
Bernheimer told me that "to accommodate both types of preferences in the office, designers should layout workstations to take advantage of the assets of the space. Accommodate a variety of working styles by positioning some with seats backing against walls or partitions and others positioned for optimal window views."
Also, normalize the fact that people work differently based on their preference by communicating to your team that there are a variety of options and each is perfectly acceptable. That way it doesn't cause concerns or issues when people aren't sure why not everyone has the same setup.
Empower your team to choose what works best.
I'm not personally a fan of "hot desk-ing," where no one has an assigned workspace but simply finds what works best every day, but there is something to be said for letting people choose based on their preference. What that really means is creating a system that matches the preferences and personality of your team.
For example, even if everyone has "assigned" workspaces, let individuals tell you how they work best and then create a variety of options to meet those needs. That means combining open spaces, private cubbies, living room spaces, and conference areas to give people the freedom to work where they're most comfortable.
Sitting in the back of the room isn't antisocial.
I'm one of the most outgoing people you would meet, I promise. But I'm an introvert. That means that while I love engaging with people and collaborating, it exhausts me, and when I have to get down to work, I want to sit far away from the center of attention and focus.
I will always find a place to sit around the edge of the room, with my back to the wall. This is true in coffee shops, restaurants, airports, and offices. You can still walk up to me and have a conversation, you just won't be able to sneak up behind me like a ninja.