Collaboration and Group Think: Stand and Work

The big pendulum of business fads is starting the long slow swing away from cubicles. Before you stand up and cheer, I should mention the swing is not back to private offices. Nope. The swing is to no-walls, few desks, and lots of collaboration.

“Key West” stand-up writing desk by standupdesks.com

There are also stand-up desks and fewer chairs, so people will have to stand more. That, of course, is an over-reaction to the bad health effects of sitting all day. But standing all day isn’t good for you either, according to Cornell University’s Human Factors and Ergonomics research:

Standing to work has long known to be problematic, it is more tiring, it dramatically increases the risks of carotid atherosclerosis (ninefold) because of the additional load on the circulatory system, and it also increases the risks of varicose veins, so standing all day is unhealthy.

The stand-up/sit-down controversy will take care of itself–I don’t think anyone wants to stand all day.
What concerns me a lot more is the constant drive toward open-workspace-as-creativity booster. I just don’t believe it. In an article called  The Death of the Cubicle–and the Killers are Collaboration and Innovation on ERE.net,  Dr. John Sullivan says about less privacy and more creativity:

Obviously without partitions separating employees, there will be less privacy, more noise, and constant interruptions. And that is exactly why cubicles are dying because the increased number of interruptions builds collaboration and sharing, which in turn increases innovation. . .

I’m clearly the wrong demographic, but “increased number of interruptions” would not build collaboration and sharing and innovation in my way of thinking, it would  interrupt my train of thought, my slow processing of information, and my ability to think. I would be less inclined to collaborate and more inclined to  take a water-soaker to work to keep people at bay.

Personally, I’ll agree with Picasso who said, Picasso: “Without great solitude no serious work is possible.” (Read more quotes from famous people on the benefits of solitude.)

Charlton Heston plays a galley slave in the 1959 movie Ben Hur.

Dr. Sullivan swoons with joy at the new workspace which he describes as “Imagine if you lined up simple tables (that are no more than 36 inches deep) end to end with nothing separating you from the employees next to you or in front of you.” Doesn’t this sound like oddly like the old ships where the forced-labor galley slaves sat lined up on simple benches with nothing separating them but an oar?

What this really fosters is Groupthink–a belief that the best ideas come from a team or group, rather than in individual. Children already sit and work in groups at tables in grades school, and 70 percent of American offices are already open-work spaces. Group compliance is praised, peer-pressure is a powerful compliance tool, and, sadly, in this cluster environment, all ideas are considered equally valid.

You might want to remember that Isaac Newton was not on the patio chatting up

Isaac Newton and the apple from pbworks.com

his pals and playing fusball when the apple fell on his head, he was alone under the apple tree.

I’ve had this quote pinned to the wall for a long time:

“Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me … they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone …. I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

Which sad loner said this? No, no, not the unabomber, but the man quietly inventing the magic that Steve Jobs fronted with great panache—the quote is from Steve Wozniak, who invented the personal computer.

The only thing that open-office, lots of interruptions, everyone sitting within arm’s length spreads is colds and flu. Ideas can certainly be half-baked in a team environment, and spurred on with group brainstorming,  but the serious work of thinking is done best in solitude.

-Quinn Mcdonald works in solitude. She’s an every-day creative writing another book.

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