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Collaborative Workspaces: Not All They're Cracked Up to Be

It's high time for some backlash against open office designs

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HubSOMA (Courtesy 5M)

The Monday after New Year's while many folks had the day off, I spent the morning talking about the future of the workplace on KQED. Not surprisingly, callers that day had a lot to say, good and bad, about cubicles.

What was more interesting was that overwhelmingly, those who called and e-mailed to comment preferred some degree of separation from their co-workers to an open plan. Just a few days later, I attended a panel called "The Not So Corporate Campus" held at the offices of SPUR (San Francisco Planning and Urban Research, which, full disclosure and as you'll note in my bio, pays me to edit their magazine). The panel aimed to explore the direction that corporate workplaces, both urban (i.e., Twitter, salesforce.com, Zynga) and suburban (Apple, Google, Facebook) were headed. The panelists (a.k.a. corporate office decision-makers) present overwhelmingly supported open office plans, largely in service of that near mystical thing they all hope to foster: collaboration. 

Collaboration is great. I like it. I’ve collaborated on many a project. But currently, collaboration is touted as the perfect solution to the oft-dueling aims of company productivity and worker satisfaction and well, just about every other problem in need of solving. Workplace design now privileges collaboration above all else. Its aesthetic expression is minimalist. Desks and desktop computers become dinosaurs, offices obsolete. Almost without exception future predictions of work envision open, densely populated office environments each buzzing with serendipitous encounters, decentralized non-hierarchies, and other jargon-y things related to generations of workers for whom hanging around the water cooler is just as good (if not better!) than a two-hour meeting.

This is all great if you’re an extrovert, as Gensler’s Erik Lucken wisely observes in his essay, "The Unsung Office Hero." But, as he cautions, "For the estimated 25 percent of the population who are introverts, the future workplace as described above is a daunting prospect…. Putting an introvert in a dense, open-office plan is like forcing the proverbial square peg into the round hole.”

So has anyone stopped to consider if collaboration is all it’s cracked up to be? Or that the innovation/disruption/creativity it’s supposed to give birth to might be a little harder to "program" (in architect’s parlance) than many had assumed? 

Lucken and others are starting to take notice. Susan Cain, author of the forthcoming book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, published "The Rise of the New Groupthink," a terrific Op/Ed piece for The New York Times this past Sunday, in which she argues that privacy makes us more productive, more creative, and even helps us learn. Decades of research show, she writes, "that individuals almost always perform better than groups in both quality and quantity, and group performance gets worse as group size increases." 

I worked in an office several years ago that occupied two floors and was about to move into a third. Our employer had planned to knock out all the walls on the new floor but we pleaded with her to keep them there. Our team—editors and writers—needed the quiet that comes with separation. Which is not to say we weren’t collaborative. We collaborated all the time. We had hours (hours!) worth of meetings. We ate lunch together, grabbed coffee together. We had drinks after work. We yelled down the hall at each other with questions. In this particular case, office design didn’t foster collaboration. Our collective desire to work with each other, when we needed to, did. Not long after, I worked in an open plan environment where everyone sat at "kitchen tables" (with someone at either side of you, across from you, behind you) and many of us were "hotelling" (where you check in to a different desk each day, when and if one is actually available). To be honest, it seemed as if no one ever got anything done.

Being a part of group is awesome (go team!) but so is individual effort. The uncritical embrace of collaboration above all else can lead, as a social scientist at the SPUR panel remarked, to the reverse of what was intended: group-think, conformity, consensus for the sake of peace-making. Further, the suburban corporate campus, even when it attempts, as Facebook and Google are, to approximate urban environment, can often serve to exacerbate the type of self-reinforcing behaviors Bill Bishop explored a few years ago in his book, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart. Forest City’s Alexa Arena, another participant in the SPUR panel, says that her company’s anthropological research while working on the more iterative workspace model seen in its 5M Project revealed that employees working in these environments found that their best ideas came not while in that bustling, lively office but more likely when they were in their own neighborhoods hanging out with people not necessarily in their own line of work, or waiting for lunch at the Korean taco truck parked in front of the office.

Drawing by Steven M. Johnson

A caller who phoned in during the KQED program pointed out another fact of the “new” open office, one that’s rarely heard in breathy discussions of the typology: Sure it presumably drives innovation but practically speaking, you can’t beat it for efficiency. Cubicle-free, open plan spaces are far less expensive to build out. There’s less infrastructure, less furniture, and most significantly, less cost per square foot. How? Let's take Facebook, which recently moved into Sun Microsystems’ former campus. The company has said it will house twice as many employees as its predecessor, radically reducing individual spaces while expanding shared ones. That might work for some…but what of the engineer, say, who conferences in to department meetings from his desk even though he works in the same building? Or the writer who can’t get the words out because of the din that distracts her. Designers (and those who employ them) need to balance the maximizing of square footage with the vagaries of personality.

Drawing by Steven M. Johnson

I can think of few knowledge worker positions that don’t require at least a modicum of what kindergarteners might call "heads-down time." To paraphrase Garbo, and directly quote Picasso, who observed, “Without great solitude, no serious work is possible." In other words, sometimes you want to be alone, and your workplace should allow for that. Some offices integrate telephone booths, allowing employees to make the occasional phone call in private, but that’s too minimal a gesture. The workplace needs to allow for more than the simple binary of alone vs. together. There are many reasons for densify-ing office spaces, varying from a more efficient use of resources to a more connected workforce. Achieving flexibility, creating spaces that serve a diverse workforce—that is where workplace design should be headed.

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