Changing where you sit at work shown to boost creativity and innovation

New research at Carnegie Mellon University suggests a game of musical chairs.

workers in China at desks
Employees work at a Truck Alliance Inc. office in Chengdu, China, on Tuesday, April 11, 2017. Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
  • Carnegie Mellon assistant professor, Sunkee Lee, found that rearranging workstations led to higher profits and better communication.
  • Companies that only focus on short-term profits instead of long-term goals are less likely to innovate and grow.
  • Opening up new dialogues between workers resulted in greater problem solving and fewer problems.

Many years ago, I attended a yoga class in the Upper East Side. My first time practicing with this particular teacher, I arrived early and unrolled my mat. A few moments later, another student informed me that I was in another member's "spot," and that she would be upset to find me there. The teacher verified this. I moved my mat, crisis avoided.

Obviously this is not a crisis. In fact, the teacher became a good friend and the student began attending my classes as well. (Considering I faced a different direction in that studio, she had to find another spot.) Yet I have legitimately watched meltdowns in classes when regulars do not get their "spot." I've even watched grown adults leave the studio when they couldn't get their way.

Whatever is happening in that person's life, it goes well beyond the placement of a yoga mat. Studios serve as places of refuge; they should not provoke further anxiety. As with any sanctuary, the people, not the space, is what really matters. For years I've pushed students to leave their comfort zone, be it in yoga, cycling, kettlebells—breaking out of the workout rut (doing the same workouts, week after week) is a terrible way to exercise, unless you're training for a marathon or another specific goal.

We love dependability. Yet we should counter with novelty. Shifting your physical location might reveal new insights. Not being beside a wall means you have to stop relying on it for balancing postures. A skillset is strengthened. Moving from the back to the front row forces you to acquire better listening skills instead of watching people in front of you. The possibilities for growth are endless.

Igniting creativity to transform corporate culture: Catherine Courage at TEDxKyoto 2012

This doesn't only apply to gyms. A new study, published in Organization Science, found the same to be true of the work environment. By rearranging workers so that they sit closer to employees they never previously interacted with, Sunkee Lee, an assistant professor at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University, discovered that creative output—and profits—increased.

Rearranging sixty sales employees at a South Korean e-commerce firm, Lee observed that employees forced to sit next to colleagues they did not know allowed them to engage in more risk-taking and experimentation. These employees also made more money for the company. No revenue increase for the control group, however.

Lee notes that companies often promote "exploration," yet it is counter to human nature. We'd rather coast along on what we know than explore what we do not. This has led to an actual emphasis on exploitation behaviors, such as efficiency, execution, and refinement—all great for short-term profits. In the long run, as any successful business owner knows, exploration is necessary. A practice as simple as shuffling workstations reminds us of the dangers of complacency.

As Lee says,

"Companies have to always prepare for the next big thing. The problem is that many ideas never even make it to the market, and that failure is an essential part of exploration."

Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash

Reasons for this uptick in exploration behaviors are so basic it's astounding they're overlooked: conversations lead to insights for developing new ideas and anecdotes shared about previous failures. By opening the conversation to a wider selection of your workforce, data and experiences are shared, integrated, and implemented.

There is no utopia. Lee sketched a few problems with shuffling, including higher rates of distraction, privacy infringements, and quicker dissemination of germs. For companies that require productivity over innovation, playing musical chairs with employees might not be in their best interest. Likewise, forcing introverts to interact might stunt personal work habits.

That said, there is an unfortunate but applicable use case exhibiting similar results: trauma. The loss of a loved one is tragic. Yet it forces you to investigate reality differently. Depression can result, but so can reinvention. "Shaking things up" occurs when we have no choice; it can also occur by choice.

Stretching out of your comfort zone is never easy. Time and again, it's shown to produce positive results, be it in a gym or office. This wisdom can only be learned through experience.


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A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source:

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source:

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source:

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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