When I was a dumb 22-year-old working my first job out of college, I got assigned to sit within 10 feet of the startup’s founder/CEO.
It was miserable.
Aside from absolutely hating the work I was doing, I had to sit under the watchful eye of the guy who ran the place. He quickly picked up on my bad attitude and made no effort to hide his contempt for me. He shot me mean glares every day, and audibly grumbled when I was on the phone with customers. I once set up a meeting with a potential customer — I occasionally did try at this job, with varied success — but he refused to let me attend, instead assigning the meeting to a more experienced salesman. And when I put in my two weeks notice, he was relieved — and instructed me to leave the company immediately.
Sitting near your boss can often be a fraught experience. It can make you feel subject to some kind of Orwellian surveillance apparatus that tracks your every bathroom break, every time you check you fantasy football lineup and every time you show up to your desk a few minutes late.
But if you want to get ahead, sitting close to your boss is one of the best things you can do, according to professional development experts. Being close to the boss gives you greater access to the most important decision-maker in the company, and a chance to make you and your work a top priority in the organization, they say.
“In terms of impact on both your near- and long-term career, and you and your team’s work performance, [proximity to your boss] is extremely important,” says Ben Waber, CEO of Humanyze, a company that tracks and consults on how people interact within an organization.
Humanyze assists other companies by having their employees wear a small, rectangular device about the size of an early generation iPod. The device is worn around the neck, much like a company ID badge, and tracks a variety of behaviors, including how often a person talks, and who they talk to. The communication data is then compared to performance data to determine how companies and individuals can work more efficiently and collaboratively.
Humanyze has collected data on more than 1 million employees, most of them in the professional services industry, and one of its most consistent, most profound findings is that casual interactions between workers — the kind of smalltalk that’s typically seen as wasting time — helps increase morale, productivity and innovation within an organization.
And those interactions are all the more important when high-ranking executives are involved. “Think about this way,” says Waber. “A little more than 50 percent of your interaction time at work is with people who sit next to you.” That includes non-verbal communication, such as Slack and email, not just face-to-face talking, Waber says.
Another quarter of your interaction time is with people who sit in the same row or pod as you (depending on your desk arrangement). About five to 10 percent is with people who work in the same general part of the office as you. And the remaining 15 percent is split between everyone else in the organization.
So if you sit next to your boss, 50 percent of your boss’ social interactions will be with you, greatly increasing your chances of becoming an indispensable member of the organization. “You should absolutely place a premium on sitting close to your boss,” Waber says. “Your proximity to key decision makers in the office is much more valuable than having a private office, or the corner office.”
It’s telling that Google and Facebook — two companies obsessed with optimization — recently moved their artificial intelligence research teams to sit closer to the CEOs at each company. AI researchers are now within high-five distance of Mark Zuckerberg, for example, showing that A.I. is a top priority for the company.
To see if what Waber says jived with actual workplace experience, I asked people on LinkedIn, Quora and Reddit whether they think it’s important to sit near the boss at work.
“I have noticed that if you sit near your boss, you have more opportunities to build a relationship, brag about your wins, get mentoring and just generally position yourself for advancement and opportunities,” writes Try McIntyre, a self-proclaimed “cube dweller” for the past 18 years.
But many of the other respondents either said it made no difference, or expressed the same anxiety I felt in my first office job. They complained about their boss clocking every minute they weren’t at their desk, supposedly working, or said that extra facetime with your boss was unnecessary.
The idea that casual conversations are meaningless at work is a common misperception, Waber says. And if people feel anxious sitting near their boss, they’re probably a bad employee in the first place. Per Waber, “I suppose if you’re on Facebook the entire day, then yes, sitting near your boss wouldn’t be a good thing. But if you’re on Facebook all day, your output at work isn’t going to be good anyway.”