11/14/2014 11:24 am ET Updated Jan 14, 2015

The Case for 'Free-Range' Knowledge Workers


Sitting Is the New Smoking

Research shows that sedentary desk jobs may be hazardous to our health. As a response to the health threat of extended sitting, some offices have embraced ergonomics and adopted the use of standing desks or even treadmill desks. There are "yoga hacks" and exercises to help us undo the damage. There are even apps that remind us when to take breaks from our computers -- technology to help us disconnect from technology.

Beyond Ergonomics

Are we missing the point when we focus on our posture and movement merely in terms of optimizing or retaining productivity? Can we go further in rethinking how millions of us work in the knowledge economy? Standing desks and reminders to take more breaks serve as palliatives to the potentially harmful effects of sedentary desk jobs, but they do not fundamentally alter the unhealthy nature of this kind of work. Rather than thinking about this phenomenon in terms of our sedentary work conditions making us sick, what about interpreting it as our bodies rebelling against these conditions? Are our bodies trying to tell us something?

Free-Range Knowledge Workers

We should absolutely invest in making offices more ergonomic and healthier places, but we also need to interrogate the social, cultural, and economic structures that create and perpetuate these kinds of working conditions. It's time to advocate for "free-range knowledge workers." As ethically minded consumers of meat, we concern ourselves with the conditions in which farm animals are raised, whether they are free-range or battery-farmed, and do they get to walk around and see the sun? As desk-bound office workers, we are not confined and fattened up for the slaughter, but our working conditions often have us spending hours confined to our cubicles and metaphorically chained to our computers and other devices. Yale University social ecologist Stephen Kellert points out that "[w]e consider it 'inhumane' to keep a gorilla in an indoor, concrete environment with no exposure to greenery or anything resembling its natural habitat, and yet we put ourselves in these environments all the time."

As a designer and writer, I love sitting, reading, thinking through big ideas, and translating them into written or visual artifacts on a computer. But sometimes work hurts. As I write this at nearly three in the morning, my back and shoulders feel sore, tight from frustration and stress. I feel like there is more to my thoughts than what exists in my "mind" narrowly defined, housed in some wrinkles of fatty jelly floating around in my skull. I feel like my whole mind-body holds ideas, knowledge, and wisdom that I want to express and share, but that I can't quite translate it into words, sentences, and paragraphs that my fingers type on a computer keyboard. This is what pains me. I wonder what wisdom lives in the mind-bodies of others.

Creativity, Unboxed.

Business leaders and politicians talk about "out of the box" creativity and innovation, yet so many of the ideas and concepts that drive economic value in our "information economy" are literally produced in boxes -- cubicles and conference rooms full of largely sedentary workers. How much more innovative could we be if we freed our bodies and minds from the box?

Maybe a box is the wrong metaphor to begin with. Maybe it's not about finding something inside or outside of this box, but about searching for something within ourselves, within our own mind-body. How would our workplaces and our society at large be different if we could think-do with our whole mind-bodies? How do we unleash the value of our latent kinesthetic creativity?

Kinesthetic creativity refers to the capacity to use our whole bodies to express ideas and feelings, including the facility to use our hands to make and fix things. Kinesthetic creativity is what dancers and actors employ to stimulate our emotions with the movements and gestures of their bodies. It is exemplified by a seasoned chef working his knife skills or a master surgeon wielding a scalpel.

Stanislav Grof reports: "Albert Einstein discovered the basic principles of relativity in an unusual state of consciousness; according to his description, most of the insights came to him in the form of kinesthetic sensations in his muscles." What if we all were tapped into our own kinesthetic sensations? What scientific discoveries and cultural and artistic innovations would arise if more of us could tune into this kinesthetic intelligence? We may never find out by sitting in a box.

This post was adapted from "The Thinking Body," part of the Wisdom Hackers anthology published by The Pigeonhole.