It takes all sorts to make your team work well

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In the world of business, sociability is the new black. Companies including Unilever, Heineken and Philips have even recruited compatible people - individuals who are predisposed to like each other - claiming it stimulates creativity, fosters teamwork, information-sharing and a spirit of openness. So what makes a working environment sociable and how much does it really benefit business?

Sociability isn't just dependent on outgoing people, says organisational psychologist Professor Cary Cooper. Research reveals that too many extroverts can create competition in attention seeking. "Rather, a very particular balance of personalities is needed," he says. "There must be at least one 'Social Emotional Leader'. They're the ones who create fun and high morale. In addition, there must be several 'Task People'. They're the ones who get most of the organisation's work done, but who are prevented from being workaholics by the 'Social Emotional Leaders'. And finally, there must be at least one 'Communicator'. They're the ones who create the atmosphere of a team rather than just the sum of separate individuals." Getting this mix right is usually a matter of coincidence, he says.

Organisational psychologist Dr Terry Kellard, believes office design is equally influential: "Many employers think open-plan encourages interaction but it can do just the opposite. Studies show that the closer people work to one another, the greater their instinct to put up barriers to create and fight for their own territory." It's one reason why staff in some organisations send e-mails - rather than speak face-to-face - to colleagues who sit only a few metres away, he says.

Training expert Judi James warns that this can lead to office rage. "Never underestimate the power of someone taking the last biscuit," she says The solution is to have a "common room" where people can meet informally on neutral ground. "It's a place where hierarchy becomes non-existent and everyone has a chance to break out of their work persona." Colour is also significant, she adds. "Bright red walls are hugely stimulating, whereas pale green has a calming effect. Many offices have no distinct colour at all, which doesn't make anyone feel gregarious."

St Luke's ad agency in London is trying to overcome such obstacles. "It's such a fantastic and varied decor that it makes you want to move around, and by sitting next to someone who you wouldn't normally, you tend to forge a lot of friendships," explains Juliet Soskice, marketing and new business manager. The result? High levels of job satisfaction, productivity and loyalty. In the three years that St Luke's has existed, nobody has left to join another company.

But there are drawbacks. There may be poor performance as a result of someone finding it hard to discipline a friend. Highly sociable environments often demonstrate an exaggerated concern for consensus. Worse still, high-sociability organisations can develop political cliques which circumvent or undermine organisational process.

The Institute of Personnel and Development says this may be why some organisations have made no attempt to jump on the bandwagon of improving sociability. But the low levels of interdependence within these workforces is probably more relevant. If you can become among the best in your industry by having the best individuals who may not co-operate with each other very much, sociability is hardly likely to be a priority.

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