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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18 thoughts on “Collaboration and Group Think: Stand and Work

  1. It depends on the individual & the type of work. Having worked in both types of environments, I can tell you that working in solitary cubicles broke down communication & morale, & less work was accomplished. The managers had offices, everyone else was stuffed into a gray cube, staring at gray walls. It was depressing & demoralizing. What once had been a cohesive group became a very dysfunctional unit.

    • It depends on a lot of things–temperament, personality, previous experience. For me (the only one I can speak for) working in an open environment with everyone listening in on all your calls, watching your face when you got off a call, knowing what happened at every meeting–it was like being sliced open and having someone read your entrails every day. I can see your viewpoint, too.

  2. I so much agree with you! Thinking about a solution for a problem is done best allone and quite – at least for me and my husband. (He is an ingenieur). When I had to work in an open office I needed so much more energy to concentrate.
    I guess it dependse on your personality. Me and my husband are both highly sensitiv person…

  3. Have to agree with
    “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.”
    I never do my best work when surrounded by others..my best comes from the quiet within, and sometimes the chaos within

  4. Puts me in mind of the Japanese team model. If I had the time, I’d try to find a better discussion, but here’s what I came up with from this site:
    http://www.focusjapan.com/025_20_working_for_a_japanese_company

    ‘Most Japanese offices are “open plan” and based on the concept of group work and consensus building as well as on the hierarchical structure of the company. Desks are uniformly alike and arranged by teams, with members sitting in order of authority and responsibility, with the highest-ranking member seated furthest away from the door and closest to the section chief’s desk. The section chief is likely to have a desk at the front of the office facing his subordinates, surveying all before him.

    ‘With only the very senior managers likely to have their own office, the lack of privacy produces a very real sense of belonging, with a great deal of communication taking place between members of a team, usually without the hindrance of dividers or cubicles. Managers can easily walk around and communicate with all the groups and individuals within the operation and therefore can ensure everyone, including themselves, are fully aware of all aspects of the work at all times.’

    Should the “stand and work” approach ever become the norm, what happens to those who have disabilities that make standing impossible or difficult for them? It’s still a tough battle making workplaces accessible, and it would seem that all gains made thus far would just go down the tubes.

    On a personal level, I do believe I would slowly be driven insane having to work at anything in the so-called collaborative environment.

    P.S. My apologies if my little experiment using HTML here doesn’t work.

  5. Hello again MLL!! I just read this from Quinn and it’s brilliant! I thought of you and the Edmonton workspace everywhere open thing and just cringed to myself.

  6. Great piece Quinn. I’ve noticed the trend during meetings with partner organizations and wondered what the thoughts were behind it. I know I couldn’t write in that environment, but also know I couldn’t publish without the push and insights that result from my writers’ group meetings in busy open coffee shops.

  7. Like Kaisa, I find a mixture of environments best. And, like you, Quinn, I find interruptions to be , . . well, interruptions. 🙂

  8. Steve Wozniak, although a remarkable guy, is not in any way a typical engineer (and wasn’t even thirty years ago, about the last time he engineered anything). He is one of the nicest guys in the world, but about this he’s not quite right.

    Organizational theorists tend to be sloppy communicators given to grandiose pronouncements. It would be ridiculous to think (and ought to be ridiculous to say, but they do) that any organization engaged in any kind of activity should operate according to one single layout, whether it’s cubicles, offices, or cafeterias. But there is at least ONE kind of work that, without any remaining doubt by now, can be done more effectively in a collaborative setting. When creating new computer-based “stuff” — cell phones, computers, apps, and the like — an organization needs hardware design, interface design, and software development, and these benefit hugely from close collaboration. There are whole industries devoted to creating and supporting collaborative development (google “Agile development” and see).

    Woz created the hardware design for the original Apple computer completely by himself, but that was thirty-five years ago. Computers are somewhat more complicated nowadays, and the one in your pocket (your phone) is not just a computer but also has five or six types of radio onboard along with surprisingly complex audio systems and a display three orders of magnitude denser than an Apple II was capable of. There is no single person anywhere who understands everything in a mobile phone at the level of detail Woz grasped Apple circuitry. The most effective “thinking” in some areas really is done in a group, but not willy-nilly — it’s quite structured.

    Anyway I beg to differ with Woz; engineering is not that much like art, and there are many different areas of engineering, some of which bear little resemblance to others.

    • I have nothing against working with others, brainstorming in a group of people, showing my ideas to others so we can talk about them and find the gaps and holes, but the idea that Sullivan brings up is nothing I can imagine working. Ever. People interrupting each other, having “collaboration sessions” (that sound suspiciously like meetings to me)– I can’t see it as creatively productive.

      • It works, in fact really well! But I wouldn’t expect it to work everywhere. I think it depends on these things:
        – team has to be experienced and extremely focused (some of the people you’ve written about working with would quickly be uninvited!)
        – the project is very complex and amenable to being worked on in parallel but interrelated areas.For example, designing the home screen functionality for a mobile phone.
        – there are characteristics of the team room that seem to have some effects, although I haven’t examined them systematically. The size and shape of the room are important, as is the ratio of wall to windows, workspace areas, etc.
        – the team needs a good mix of skills — in the example I mentioned, you need a mix of visual designers, prototypers, software developers, interaction designers, and if possible a system architect

  9. There’s an interesting story about open offices in Steward Brand’s book ‘ow Buildings Learn – What Happens After They’re Built’. According to him, open offices where an answer to increased shifting of people and material as office work became more project- than role-based. Firms needed to have a more cost effective way to adjust as the flux of workers and computers and other gear increased. So in a way the open office is the outcome or even a symbol of increased restlessness in contemporary office work per se. It also means a higher density of workers and hence higher space efficiency and higher rents. You’re right, sounds more like a sweatshop.

    Apparently best work space would be one mixing open office and traditional office, something that Brand calls ‘caves and commons’: ‘Each office worker has a a private office, often small, which opens into a generous open area surrounded by many other private offices. The open area has a kitchen, some couches, sometimes tables for sitting around informally, and sometimes a working library, or at least a rack of current periodicals. You can shut the door of your cave and concentrate, or you can leave your door open and keep an eye and ear on who’s coming and going in the commons, and whether the meeting or presentation going on there might be worth leaning in on. The feeling is congenial and homey, and it encourages the casual encounters which, research keeps showing, are at the heart of creativity in offices.’ (p. 172)

    I would love to have my work space in such an office where I would be surrounded by my tribe of same-minded colleagues. I would have my cave but if I needed a distraction or a second opinion I would have my workmates at hand. Over a cuppa.

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