​Collaboration or Chatter?


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The phenomenon of the open office has had unexpected conse-
quences. Now, the pendulum swings back
as we begin to see that creativity and even collaboration require the ability to retreat as well as connect.  

For many organizations, creating a 21st century workplace seemed to mean an open workplace—one without walls, doors, cubicles or privacy. That trend, and the assumption that people will collaborate more effectively in an open space, has proved to be something of a misfire. In fact, distracting crosstalk and chatter drives people to use headphones or escape to a “quiet room” to think and focus. At the same time, cell phones, text alerts and other forms of technology disrupt concentration and, for many, undermine a calm, focused state of mind.

Indeed, the open plan is embraced by some and deeply regretted by others who say that lack of speech privacy inhibits in-depth conversation and that continual noise disruptions contribute to physical and mental exhaustion. Even in start-ups, where one might expect Gen Y workers to feel perfectly at home in a big, open space populated by their peers, people often seek out a quiet corner, a room with a door or simply escape to the park or a café where disruptions are minimal.

The phenomenon of the open office has had unexpected consequences. Now, the pendulum swings back as we begin to see that creativity and even collaboration require the ability to retreat as well as connect. It means providing a mix of open and enclosed spaces, lounges and soft seating areas, conference rooms and break rooms, that support how individuals cycle through the day—writing a report, going to a meeting, pausing on a stairway for a quick update and joining colleagues in the kitchen for beer and chips on Friday afternoon. People work differently than the open plan alone can accommodate. Individuals need time to reflect, solve problems and selectively share with others.

Noise ranks high on the list of office workers’ complaints and it isn’t getting better in spite of the fact that an electronic hum has replaced the clack-clack of typewriters and that heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment are now quieter than twenty years ago. A study undertaken by the University of California, Berkeley, Center for the Built Environment, found that noise and lack of speech privacy are experienced as distracting and stressful, especially when one needs to concentrate on a task. The open office makes it difficult to escape sounds generated by coworkers and “green design, with its emphasis on hard surfaces and environmentally friendly insulation, is compounding the problem,” adds David Sykes, executive director of the Acoustic Research Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The University of California study indicates that speech privacy may be a more important issue than noise, especially in offices with large open areas, ubiquitous cell phones and common areas where groups convene adjacent to individual workspaces. Although the noise level, in terms of decibels, is relatively low, office workers complain about intrusive telephone conversations—especially speakerphones—as well as the fact that it is impossible to have a conversation without being overheard. The lack of privacy increases stress and “chips away at good health.”

Dissatisfaction with the distractions and interruptions experienced in the open plan is likely to correlate with the kind of work being done (programmers generally need more quiet than sales staff ) and with the individual worker’s level of introversion or extroversion. “Quiet,” a well-researched book by former Wall Street attorney Susan Cain, has made an impression on the business world by reminding us that we are not all extroverts who thrive on a high level of interaction, activity and stimulation.

Extroverts tend to be talkative, assertive and gregarious in the workplace. They enjoy “thinking out loud” and prefer to collaborate or socialize with co-workers rather than spend time alone. But at least one-third of people are introverts, who prefer to work on their own or with one or two people with whom they are comfortable. Introverts can also be highly creative as they are reflective thinkers able to generate ideas in solitude. Introverts are not “shy,” lacking social skills or the ability to succeed—take Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and J.K. Rowling as examples of successful introverts. It does mean that onethird of the people in an open plan are likely to be uncomfortable there.

Gensler featured an interview with the author of “Quiet,” in the firm’s Dialogue publication entitled, “Stressed out by Openness.” Cain noted that workspaces should be designed, “where there’s an ability to pick and choose how much stimulation you want, at any given time. Serious flexibility is crucial. We need more of a choice to either work in a big, open clattery area, or in quieter places, in nooks and crannies.”

Research studies conducted by Gensler bear out the premise that people are searching for quiet—and not just introverts or those whose jobs require a high level of focus. According to Gensler’s 2013 U.S. Workplace Survey, 69% of workers are dissatisfied with noise levels at their primary workspace and 77% prefer quiet when they need to focus. In still another study, employees in cubicles received 29% more interruptions than those in private offices. And employees who are interrupted frequently report 9% higher rates of exhaustion. Plus, error rates double after an interruption.

Jason Feifer, Senior Editor at Fast Company bemoans the loss of his private office and the need to wear earphones and listen to music while working: “Back when I had an office, I left work with my mind still happy and fresh; I emailed myself ideas while walking home, as some newsy podcast told me even more useful info. Now, at the end of a day of nonstop jazz, I leave work feeling fried. I miss my podcasts, which my brain just doesn’t have room for. I walk to the subway in silence, repairing.”

Other people are not the only distraction in the workplace. Increasingly, we live and work in world that is always “on”—potentially causing physical, emotional and psychological stress. Work can and does follow us home, extending the workday and the workweek to 24 / 7. At the same time, texts, IM and social media alerts interfere with our focus at work. The constant monitoring of devices is a growing distraction, nibbling away at our ability to stay on task.

Our inability to focus on any given task is becoming a real concern. The Mayo Clinic offers courses to aid with “attention therapy” and “practicing presence.” There are camps and clinics popping up across the country to provide a “tech detox.” And there are apps that will alert you when it’s time to take a break.

Recent research stresses the need to “layer in spaces” that support all work modes and are equipped with seamless technology that enables workers to fluidly move from space to space. In some cases, employees do prefer a shared space where one can easily speak to a neighbor when there’s a question about a project or an idea to bat back and forth. At other times, an employee needs a room with a door. To enhance flexibility, some spaces can be designated as “quiet zones” or “tech-free zones,” while others can be set aside for small group conversations. At the coffee bar, high tables and stools invite solo or ensemble work, as do semi-private booths in a cafeteria. Libraries also provide a place where conversation is discouraged and quiet reigns.

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