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Shuffling Workstations Gives Employees a Creativity Boost, Study Finds

April 25, 2019 by Josh Hrala

Remember a few years ago when open office plans were all the rage. It seemed like every forward-thinking company was knocking down cubicle walls and forcing employees to look at one another.

And, while open office plans were supposed to give employees a boost and foster community, the results have been pretty lackluster. In fact, a lot of studies have shown that open offices do the opposite of their goal.

Despite all of this, a new study was just published by Sunkee Lee, an Assistant Professor of Organizational Theory and Strategy at Carnegie Mellow University, that suggests that shuffling desks is actually the best way to foster creativity and collaboration offices because it forces new people to work together.

According to Carnegie Mellon University, the study found “that reconfiguring work areas to force people to sit closer to co-workers with whom they did not previously sit close to naturally encouraged interactions, which helped employees develop new product ideas that benefited the company.”

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At first glance, this seems very much aligned with the open office craze that hit a few years back, primarily in the tech sector. However, Lee claims that by making employees swap desks often, they will be put in situations that they normally wouldn’t be.

“You have more chances to learn things useful for developing new business ideas,” he said.

The Study

So, how did Lee come to this conclusion? Here’s CMU again:

“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 “exploration,” which describes behaviors such as risk-taking and experimentation. These employees also performed better financially than the control group, individuals who did not experience much change in their seating arrangements.”

These benefits were seen most with employees who had higher levels of experience inside the organization and who did not previously know or have social ties with their desk mates.

“Those who had higher levels of experience were better at learning new knowledge and applying it to their own tasks, and new interactions with unfamiliar colleagues prompted more learning,” the university reports.

The Benefits

Besides learning new things and being able to apply those things to their specific functions, Lee said that forcing workers to work closely with relative strangers leads to more ‘exploration,’ which basically means that they were more likely to experiment and come up with new ideas (AKA, they were more creative).

This, Lee claims, is very beneficial to organizations because exploration isn’t something that many businesses strive for. Instead, many focus on perfecting a process instead of looking at new ways to perform it. This can also be said for new products or services that can come about as employees engage more with one another.

“Companies have to always prepare for the next ‘big thing,’” Lee said.

“The problem is that many ideas never even make it to the market, and that failure is an essential part of exploration.”

The study also found that exploration led to higher financial success, too, which contradicts previous thinking that it’s better to perfect a process than to look at it another way.

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“[Lee] believes that the financial uptick was due to the knowledge individuals learned from their new colleagues before engaging in exploration. The new colleagues most likely provided insights into how to source and develop new ideas, along with advice on how to avoid mistakes based on their own experiences,” the university reports.

In the end, the study’s findings suggest that forcing people to work closely with relative strangers can foster a more creative environment where employees feel better about taking calculated risks and, when they do take risks, they pay off more than previous desk arrangements.

The Drawbacks

Okay, so that’s all well and good, but what are the downsides of this process?

Well, for starters, sickness obviously transfers around the office a lot more when you have different people all shuffling around. Plus, just like in all open office settings, people may complain about privacy issues and be more distracted.

However, if you think about it, this ‘distraction’ is sort of what Lee wants to happen because if employees are simply working next to one another and not talking – they aren’t learning anything new either.

Despite these complaints, Lee suggests that managers do not allow introverted or shy employees to sequester themselves because they will miss out on the beneficial learning that can come from forced seating arrangements.

“It may satisfy people more, but there could be selection into those areas, with shy people gravitating toward the quiet spaces,” Lee said.

“And that would remove the learning opportunities for introverts and those who could otherwise interact with such people.”

Putting It All Together

In summary, the new study found that organizations may receive a creativity boost if they force workers sit at desks with individuals that they do not have strong social ties with. This forced seating arrangement allowed workers to ‘explore’ more, which led to them finding new ways of performing their current roles, fostered new ideas, and led to increased productivity.


While these findings are fascinating, the study goes against the grain. For years now, people have been bemoaning the idea of open offices because they actually reduce face-to-face communication and are generally less productive than private offices or cubicles.

It will likely take more research into this area to see if the results are replicable or even tolerated by workers. For example, it stands to reason that workers will not want to constantly be in an uncomfortable state while working. Plus, what happens if you have a smaller team who all know each other? These issues will need addressed in the future.

As always, the best thing to do for your workforce is to listen to your workforce. If they work better in cubes, use cubes, for instance. It may, however, be a good idea to force seating arrangements for a week just to see what happens and chalk it up as a fun experiment.

The study was recently published in the journal Organizational Science. Read the full thing for yourself here.

Josh Hrala

Josh Hrala

Josh is an HR journalist and ghostwriter who's been covering outplacement and offboarding for over six years. Before pivoting to the HR world, he was a science journalist whose work can be found in Popular Science, ScienceAlert, The Huffington Post, Cracked, Modern Notion, and more.

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