The Good and Bad of Collaboration


Collaboration is a good thing but can be harmful to focus and productivity.
Collaboration is a good thing but can be harmful to focus and productivity.

As my wife and I were looking for a new house one of the requirements was that there be room for us to have ample home office space. We experimented with a joint working space, much like you might find in an open office environment used by many companies today. We discovered very quickly that did not work for us. We do very different work and have very different requirements of the space, so it became quickly apparent that we would need separate offices. We got in each other’s way and interrupted each other’s thought patterns. It was particularly bad for me because I am very distractible. I thought about this experience when I read an article that talked about collaboration and the way offices are structured today. Here are some thoughts on the good and bad of collaboration.
The good
Several of my clients and friends have companies that have “modern” open office spaces. The thought being that this open space would promote collaboration among the employees. Indeed the opportunity for cross-talk does promote idea generation and problem solving. The central areas in these workspaces are meant to spur innovation and there are numerous examples of this occurring. However, sometimes this office space structure may hinder productivity.
The bad
Vickie Elmer, in her article Too much collaboration is hurting worker productivity, argues that this type of collaboration has actually been detrimental to productivity, idea generation and innovation. The thought behind this is that if everyone around you is collaborating it interrupts your focus. My experience bears this out. With too much distraction around me I suffer many of the same problems I suffer listening to my email notice dinging. Productivity experts tell you that if you want to get something finished you must minimize interruptions. They tell you to shut off your email notifications. That is the same thing you should do with those collaboration conversations that are going on around you.
If interruption of thought is the downside of being collaborative how do you help employees get more focused? A solution I have seen in some of the open office spaces I have visited is that there are spaces for employees to gather for those collaborative discussions. Kinetix, the company of a couple of friends, does a great job of this. They have discussion areas and also have offices set up where people can go and work together on a project. They have smaller offices where an individual can go for focused work or phone conversations. Yet their space is open and promotes collaborative efforts with ease.
Ms. Elmer suggests that some employees should have the opportunity to go home for that focus time. She quotes a study that says “Those who can choose where to work still spend about 70% of their time in the office, Gensler reported. Workers who can choose their environment are more satisfied with their job, and rate themselves as more effective, especially in their focus work.”
Promote focus along with collaboration
If your collaborative efforts seem to have stalled, it may not be the collaboration that is stalled but the focus that is necessary to generate much of the work that needs to be collaborated on. Review your office set up and your policies to see if you are allowing your employees the necessary time to focus on work and ideas.

2 thoughts on “The Good and Bad of Collaboration”

  1. Photograph by Nic LehouxCollaborating: An open office is said to promote collaboration, but that doesn’t mean your neighbor will appreciate when you’ve gathered your entire department next to his desk. A private or semi-private space is great for working with colleagues, especially if it’s easy for others to join in. Keep these spaces casual—it helps loosen people up so they can discuss ideas more freely.

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