Companies that hope to avoid long-term stagnation can jolt employees into creative thinking by forcing them to sit alongside unfamiliar coworkers in open work spaces, according to new research from the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University.
In his paper “Learning-by-Moving: Can Reconfiguring Spatial Proximity Between Organizational Members Promote Individual-level Exploration,” Sunkee Lee, Assistant Professor of Organizational Theory and Strategy, found that reconfiguring work areas to force people to sit closer to co-workers with whom they did not previously sit naturally encouraged interactions, which helped employees develop new product ideas.
When people are forced to interact with unfamiliar colleagues, “you have more chances to learn things useful for developing new business ideas,” Lee says.
He tested his theory in a South Korean e-commerce firm that changed the seating arrangements of 60 sales employees. Those who sat near new colleagues engaged in more risk-taking and experimentation. These employees also performed better financially than individuals who did not experience much change in their seating arrangements.
Lee also noted that the employees who seemed to learn the most from their new neighbors were those who had higher levels of experience in the organization. They were better at learning new knowledge and applying it to their own tasks, and new interactions with unfamiliar colleagues prompted more learning.
He did note that open work spaces do have some drawbacks with privacy and distractions. Therefore, in a company where productivity is more important than innovation, such as an accounting firm, an open work space actually could be detrimental, Lee said.
He also cautioned against creating a hybrid environment with quiet silo areas where employees could go for more privacy, as it could remove such learning opportunities for more introverted employees. ―