In organisations across the globe people are sharing knowledge and expertise in new and innovative ways. Collaboration has become the buzzword in business circles – yet whilst many workplaces make it easy for people to collaborate and communicate effectively, many leaders remain dissatisfied with the frequency of breakthroughs or lack of innovative ideas. Uncertain of what to do next, they carve out trendy new group spaces, add more technology or step up training efforts – to little overall effect.
Paradoxically by trying to encourage more communication and collaboration between colleagues, they’re only making the problem worse. Too much interaction and not enough privacy creates a common form of crisis in the workplace known as the “epidemic of overwhelm” which places a heavy toll on workers’ creativity, productivity, engagement and well-being.
Herman Miller’s research suggests that in every workplace around the world you’ll find people engaged in the same 10 basic activities. 7 of these require collaboration and communication, the best value creation however comes from concentrated effort. Successful collaboration thus requires giving colleagues easy access to information and each other but also requires giving each individual the time, space and freedom to focus and re-charge. Too many workplaces today are not offering the quiet space and privacy most people need to deliver their best work.
Desperately seeking quiet space
Many use headphones as a giant invisible DO NOT DISTURB sign above their heads in open plan spaces, complaining that it is easy to be distracted and difficult to hear themselves think. Unfortunately this cuts people off from hearing and engaging in valuable conversations for their work, thus eliminating the potential advantage that open plan workspaces are intened to provide.
Open plan office areas get a bad rap but they are not any more to blame than everyone moving into private offices as a solution. It’s a question of balance – achieving the right balance between working in private and working together which is critical for any ambitious organisation looking to grow and gain competitive advantage.
An epidemic of overwhelm
Unfortunately many employees have no choice but to work in environments that are saturated with stimuli. Susan Cain, author of “Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking” suggests that many people perform better without being constantly surrounded by people, but by promoting teamwork above all else there is a risk of creating “groupthink” in companies where people bow to peer pressure rather than contribute a differing point of view. Cain suggests refining the way in which organisations foster collaboration by “creating settings in which people are free to circulate in a shifting kaleiodoscope of interactions and then disappear into private spaces” to re-focus and recharge.
With a wealth of information now available at our fingertips, we are now hitting the a new form of bottleneck – our capacity to pay attention and make effective decisions. David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work stats that we are in the midst of “an epidemic of overwhelm” due to huge increases in the amount of information people are expected to process and the significant increase in the distractions that happen in the workplace. Once distracted, a destructive ripple effect occurs – it can take the human mind as long as 23 minutes to return to the task at hand. When we try to pay attention actively to any two memory-dependent tasks at once, we’re easily distracted and end up doing neither one well. Given this reality, achieving peak performance in today’s work environments has become much more challenging than it was even just a few years ago.
Are we feeling too exposed?
Spatial perceptions have played an important role in the survival of the human race, and significant implications from our evolutionary past remain rooted in our psyches today.
We prefer landscapes that give us a clear view of what’s happening around us —open places that offer a broad vantage point as well as being able to easily find places to hide if needed,” said Oliver Heath, global biophildc design expert, at the recent Design Assembly South event. Whilst our ancestral watering holes and caves have been replaced, it is clear that people’s needs for both types of settings in the workplace environment are basic and instinctive.
There’s mounting evidence that a lack of privacy is causing people to feel overexposed in today’s workplaces and is threatening people’s engagement and their cognitive, emotional and even physical wellbeing. There is more and more evidence to suggest that workplace design has a strong and definable impact on business results.
What becomes clear is that there is no single type of optimal work setting, people need space to collaborate, communicate and concentrate effectively. Spectrum Workplace has distilled over 40 years of lived experience working with multifarious companies to create the 5 office spaces that are required for business success. You can read about them here.