What Gets Lost In Workplace Collaboration: Individual Focus

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If you struggle to concentrate at the office, maybe the culprit is too much co-operation, writes Morgan Campbell in the Toronto Star:

A new study by architecture firm Gensler suggests that office design trends intended to foster collaboration, like open offices or low-partition cubicles, can in fact inhibit production by consuming space and time employees might otherwise use to focus on specific tasks. The company’s 2013 U.S. Workplace Survey cites an inability to focus as the top factor limiting workplace productivity and says a lack of dedicated space contributes to the problem.

The study further points out that as work patterns shift to emphasize co-operation, office design often lagged. Without spaces to meet, collaborative activities often take place at an employee’s desk, pulling workers away from solo tasks and distracting neighbours. “Collaboration can be taken too far. It actually has diminishing returns,” says Diane Hoskins, co-CEO of Gensler. “When everybody’s collaborating around you, you can’t focus.”

According to the study, which polled 2,035 workers in a broad range of industries, a strong correlation exists between focus, productivity and job satisfaction. Among respondents who said they had time to concentrate on the job, 31 per cent also reported feeling satisfied with work and 14 per cent classified themselves as high-performing.

So is the solution to scrap open spaces and cocoon office employees behind towering partitions? Hardly, says Gensler. The study found that the most productive companies foster collaboration along with individual focus, and they design offices that allow employees to do both. Employees whose companies valued a balance between individual and collaborative work tended to like their jobs more than other respondents, with 36 per cent reporting they were satisfied with their jobs and 23 per cent giving high ratings to their workplace environments.

According to the study, workers who report having time and space to focus are 57 per cent more able to collaborate than other workers, and 42 per cent more likely to socialize than workers who report having trouble concentrating. (Read more here.)

This study is very much in line with an article I wrote last year for Time.com, “The Open Office Is A Hotbed Of Stress.” In that piece I wrote that “The modern open office was designed for team building and camaraderie but is mostly distinguished by its high noise levels, lack of privacy and surfeit of both digital and human distractions. And indeed, several decades of research have confirmed that open-plan offices are generally associated with greater employee stress, poorer co-worker relations and reduced satisfaction with the physical environment.”

A cynic might suggest that the claim that open offices promote collaboration is a nice-sounding cover story for the fact that cubicles are much cheaper than individual offices. But today’s workers do need to collaborate more often than employees in the past. The physical spaces we work in don’t yet accommodate that reality in an effective way.

How about you—have you found yourself distracted at work by all the coworkers busily “collaborating” around you?

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One Response to “What Gets Lost In Workplace Collaboration: Individual Focus”

  1. Lisa Cunningham says:

    More than 10 years ago, I remember a University of South Florida industrial/organizational psychologist who told me that the most stressful thing when considering job satisfaction was frequent interruptions. This news about cubicles doesn’t surprise me at all. Now with even more distractions like social media, it’s a wonder any work gets done at all.

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