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Is Isolation the New Collaboration?

Sean Murphy, Masters Student at USD, takes a look at the growing conflict of opinion regarding the efficiency of open office layouts.

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Google-Zurich

The drive towards adopting collaborative workspaces is receiving opposition as managers, designers and employees begin realising unforeseen shortcomings inherent to this layout. The benefits of energising the workplace, improving innovation and enhanced communication provide companies an edge during hyper-competitive times. The reported disadvantages of open layouts include loss of productivity, decreased work quality and ‘groupthink.’

Unsurprisingly, the experts have been weighing in with responses running the gamut from total opposition to total support. Here is a partial sampling of noteworthy opinions as this approach to office layouts enters its second decade:

  • Gensler’s 2013 US Workplace Survey provides one of the freshest assessments from the international consulting firm. The three key findings: U.S. workers are struggling to work effectively, effective workplaces balance focus and collaboration, and employers who provide a spectrum of choices for workers to decide when and where to work are exhibiting higher performance.
  • Jason Fried, co-founder of the famed organization software Basecamp, stated during a TED talk “If people don’t have time to think, and thinking time needs to be your own time, then they have a really hard time actually producing great work.” In an anecdote later in the speech, Fried said “When you ask other people and yourself, ‘where do I go when I really want to get work done?’ The myriad of responses include airplanes, basements, the coffee shop and anyplace where they can isolate themselves to think.”
  • Forbes contributor Barbara Armstrong believes “companies today want a magic bullet….many invest in a simple solution or two-ideas that, at least in their minds, will magically increase the company’s innovation.” Long story short, knocking down some walls and buying some new desks is a surefire way to spend your financial resources on what amounts to a half-measure at best.
  • Researchers Ricardo Sosa and John Gero found individuals brainstorming in isolation were more productive than groups because “bottlenecks” occur in group work. They concluded by acknowledging the importance of convergent and divergent thought while advising companies balance this by creating opportunities for individual isolation.
  • David Craig recently published a contrarian article on Fast Company titled It doesn’t matter whether or not you like your open office. Mr. Craig acknowledges the recent negativity against open offices but dismisses it for reflecting individual sentiments which fail to consider the common good companies realize. His second point is that even though an open office is typically discussed as an all or nothing proposition, it doesn’t have to be.

By reframing the discussion, David Craig introduces the opportunity for constructive dialogue. Next, the question becomes how should we weigh the workspaces? Darren Nix, co-founder of the start-up commercial office space company, 42Floors, advocates an open floor plan with isolation spaces. Do you envision a different approach working for your company? Leave a comment so others can hear about it.

Workspace will be a key theme at MIPIM this year. Check out the panel session, Workspace in Transformation: which face for tomorrow’s office.

 

Download the full Innovation Programme at MIPIM 2014

 

 

Sean P. Murphy (University of San Diego Masters in RE ’14)

spmurphy@global.t-bird.edu

Twitter: @TheLastSean

 

 

Image: Google Zurich

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