Get high with a little help from your friends?

Sounds counter-intuitive, but working with friends may boost the productivity of the slowest workers...

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

You'd think that allowing people to work with their friends was a good way to ensure that they waste half the day chatting. But apparently not, according to a trio of university professors. In fact, according to their research, companies that deliberately keep friends apart may be missing a motivational trick...

The three academics, from UCL, the LSE and the University of Pennsylvania, have been casting their beady eyes over a gang of fruit pickers - and discovered that workers who got on well tended to match each other's speed. Pickers were first observed working alone to get an estimate of their average speed, and then observed again when working with their mates; the result was that slower/ average workers would often fall in line with their faster friends. 'These fruit pickers work in rows,' said UCL professor Imran Rasul. 'So if they go at the same speed as their friends they get to chat. If one is faster and shoots ahead, that’s clearly not possible.'

Now we know what you're thinking. What possible relevance could the behaviour of a gang of fruit pickers have to the myriad subtleties of office life? But the authors insist that their findings do apply more broadly. 'If you are an administrator filling in forms, for example, the number of forms you complete will depend on how long you spend chatting to your colleague, and that will also affect your colleague’s work rate,' Professor Rasul 'explains'.

However, before companies start block-booking team-bonding weekends, or devising complicated lifestyle surveys to work out which of their staff will get along best, beware - there is a catch to this miraculous motivational tool. While slower workers often improved on their average speed, faster workers would also adapt to keep pace by slowing down. As a result, the average fruit picker was 10% more productive when working with a faster friend, but that same friend was – you guessed it – 10% slower. In companies where the average pace is pretty slow, the study’s authors say, the ‘friendship effect’ may actually slow down those few who might otherwise push up the pace. Which also suggests the net result would be barely noticeable even at best. (And what about if you put staff next to people they absolutely hate? Maybe they'll work faster still?)

All rather inconclusive, then. But we suppose you could argue that if you’re lucky enough to have an office full of thrusting employees who work like they're main-lining caffeine all day, placing the few dullards next to their mates may be a clever way to boost their productivity (while also making you a pretty popular boss). On the other hand, if your workforce is of the more sluggish variety, don’t bother trying to get a select few to set the pace; they’ll probably work faster on their own.

In today's bulletin:

UK growth revised up - as pound slides again
HBOS debt pile pushes Lloyds to £6.3bn loss
Get high with a little help from your friends?
The hidden cost of price cuts
Why the rise in forced retirements is bad for the UK

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