Features | From Pivot Magazine

Why sitting next to strangers makes you more productive

The case for shaking up your office’s seating plan

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illustration of a man and woman listening to devices while sitting on one chairDespite evidence that periodically reshuffling employees can spawn fresh ideas, an open floor plan isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution (Illustration by Leeandra Cianci)

We’ve all heard the theory that open offices foster collaboration and productivity. At tech behemoths like Google and Facebook, where cubicles are verboten, it’s almost a truism. But Carnegie Mellon University researcher Sunkee Lee wasn’t so sure.

“There have been studies on how increasing spatial proximity leads to more interactions and collaborations,” says Lee, an assistant professor of organizational theory and strategy. “But it wasn’t clear if individuals actually learned things that helped them come up with innovative and useful new ideas on their own.”

So he decided to investigate. In a new study, Lee tracked a South Korean e-commerce company as it relocated to a new HQ, where the company’s 60 salespeople were rearranged in open workspaces.

Analyzing eight months of sales data, Lee discovered the seating shuffle had worked wonders. Stationed next to new peers, sales­people picked up knowledge that led to experimentation and improved financial performance. For example, an employee in the baby-product division boosted sales by sourcing and selling a toilet that plays toddler-friendly music—an idea the employee got sitting next to someone from the electronics division. Some staff discovered better places to source new products; others learned new tactics to negotiate with suppliers. The positive effects were strongest among veteran employees who didn’t know their new desk mates. Compared to a control group that remained seated next to the same colleagues, the relocated workers were the clear winners.

So, should every business reshape its office in the likeness of a WeWork? Not so fast. Despite evidence that periodically reshuffling employees can spawn fresh ideas, Lee says an open floor plan isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. “It’s best for companies doing innovative work or creating new knowledge,” he says. “It might not be good for tasks that are standardized or that require concentration.” After all, an open office can be more motivating—or just more distracting.