Let’s Spend Less Time Talking And More Time Thinking
Collaboration. Countless articles are written about it and by many it’s seen as the lifeblood of the modern workplace.
But if everyone is busy collaborating, what happens to the other type of work we’re all required to do; the work that requires time, focus and uninterrupted concentration?
‘I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has ever been invented by committee,’ Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, famously said.
Certainly, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin and Sir Isaac Newton didn’t come up with the theories of relativity, gravity or evolution thanks to brainstorms in open plan offices.
Yet insufficient consideration is being given by management to work that requires deep focus and concentration.
Ask any manager about the steps they are taking to encourage collaboration in their office and you are likely to hear a raft of initiatives. Ask them about ideas to stop their staff being disturbed by co-workers and it will likely be another story.
Susan Cain, author of ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’, wrote in The New York Times, back in 2012, ‘Solitude is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea … that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place.’
She continues, ‘Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption.’
And, according to Picasso: ‘Without great solitude, no serious work is possible.’
Anyone who has ever reached for their noise-cancelling headphones will know what we are talking about.
Solitude improves productivity
Yet it seems open plan offices that encourage collaboration are becoming more and more popular. This comes despite studies warning against an exaggerated focus on the perceived benefits of collaboration – such as a 2014 Swedish study of more than 1,800 workers which found open-plan workers were twice as likely to take sick days as workers in traditional offices. The reason, the researchers hypothesised, was the spread of germs and increased environmental stress of working in an open space, such as an inability to focus.
It seems that, with levels of interruption rising, many employees are spending so much time reacting to requests that they have to do much of their ‘focused’ work outside of core hours. People are working longer hours but overall productivity isn’t necessarily rising at the same rate.
Indeed, the UK’s productivity gap has been widely discussed in recent weeks. The Chartered Management Institute (CMI) published its own ‘Management Manifesto’, with CEO Ann Francke proclaiming that ‘companies remain choked by outdated management cultures’ – with poor management estimated to cost the UK £84 billion in lost productivity a year.
We need to recognise that too much switching between tasks not only reduces productivity, but erodes the quality of decisions, too. Studies have shown that multitasking deteriorates the quality of work, while Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman highlights the pitfalls associated with letting your ‘fast thinking’ reactionary brain make all the decisions.
‘Evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups,’ was the stark warning from the organisational psychologist Adrian Furnham.
So, what can be done?
The first step is to acknowledge that different people have differing needs around ‘focused’ work and to provide working environments that cater to these needs.
We need to recognise, too, that workspace design is a major contributing factor to a business’ productivity. Whether it’s millennials versus GenXers, introverts versus extroverts, a workspace that includes areas for every type of worker will help maximise productivity.
Offices need to include areas where people can work by themselves and be free of distraction as well as open areas for collaboration, and conference rooms for meetings that require privacy.
It’s imperative that business leaders learn to recognise this. While collaboration is an essential ingredient of the modern world, we all need time and space to think.