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Creative Employees Perform Best When Bored

Think employees need an engaging workplace to produce great work? Think again.

Open-floor plans have been touted as bastions of collaborative work and creativity in the office, but new research suggests that perhaps creative employees would do better in a cube.

While the argument can be made that open office spaces improve productivity--and subtly reinforce the notion that the boss is always watching--they also result in a lot of distractions. And distraction, it turns out, is the enemy of creative thinking.

A recent study presented by Dr. Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman from the University of Central Lancashire suggests that people who grow bored at work are more likely to excel on creative tasks.

Mann and Cadman asked 40 people to carry out a boring task--copying random numbers from a phone book--and then a more creative task: Inventing new uses for a pair of plastic cups. The researchers found that people who had grown bored with the drudgery of copying numbers developed more creative uses for the plastic cups than those in a less-bored control group.

The "daydream effect" uncovered by Mann and Cadman has also been linked to another known creativity booster: Alcohol.

In April, researchers at the University of Chicago performed a study that revealed intoxicated participants made more creative word-associations--linking the word "pit" to "arm", "peach" and "tar", for example--than their sober counterparts.

Similarly, sleep-deprived or exhausted individuals developed more creative solutions to puzzles than their well-rested peers. In a third study led by Mareike Wieth of Albion College in 2011, scientists surveyed 428 students to determine the time of day when they were most productive and alert--then they tested them at an hour when the students were out of their element, or most groggy.

"Results showed consistently greater insight problem solving performance during non-optimal times of day compared to optimal times of day," the researchers concluded.

But before you go handing out beers--or all-nighters--to employees at crunch time, consider this: Researchers still aren't sure that bored, tired, or drunk employees will perform more creatively at work--just that they'll find a creative outlet somewhere.

"What we want to do next is to see what the practical implications of this finding are," concludes Mann. "Do people who are bored at work become more creative in other areas of their work--or do they go home and write novels?"

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Last updated: Jul 23, 2013

FRANCESCA FENZI | Staff Writer

Francesca Fenzi reports on entrepreneurship, technology and small business news from San Francisco. Her work has previously appeared in TIME, USA Today, Pop City and The Northside Chronicle.




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