Research Points to “collaboration curse” in Coworking Spaces

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As the flexible workspace field grows and operators look for meaningful ways to stand out from the competition, workplace wellbeing is becoming an increasingly hot topic. After all, if clients and members feel ‘well’ in your space — be it the abundance of natural light, the conflict-free environment or on-site yoga classes — they are more likely to stay.

Enhancing wellness in the workplace often focuses on physical, tangible, and visual elements, such as workspace design and ergonomic furniture. But feeling well at work has just as much to do with mental as physical health, perhaps more so.

One particular strand of ‘wellness’ focuses on how to create workplaces to suit different personalities, particularly introverts and extroverts. In 2012 Susan Cain’s fascinating book ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’ famously threw the spotlight on the inability of open-plan offices to cater to introverts. Studies suggest that introverts may account for up to 50% of the U.S. population. Yet while Cain’s research triggered much-needed discussion and further research over the challenges faced by introverted personalities in open-plan offices, the world is still dominated by a desire for greater collaboration.

This may be a boon for the coworking sector, but it does not present a sustainable option for introverted personalities.

Indeed this bold yet insightful article by The Economist (Jan 23rd 2016) positions collaboration as a ‘curse’, and states that “the fashion for making employees collaborate has gone too far,” adding: “In modern business, collaboration is next to godliness. Firms shove their staff into open-plan offices to encourage serendipitous encounters. Management thinkers urge workers to be good corporate citizens and help each other out all the time.”

According to research cited within the article, these are some of the chief complaints identified by collaborative working (coworking operators, look away now):

  • Interruptions and multi-tasking increase the total time required to complete a task, and also reduce the quality of work produced (Gloria Mark of the University of California, Irvine).
  • Switching rapidly from one task to another reduces efficiency because of “attention residue”, a term coined by Sophie Leroy of the University of Washington Bothell. It means that the mind continues to think about the previous task even as it moves onto a new one.
  • Productivity is often measured incorrectly. Managers and employees are frequently judged by their ability to attend meetings, speak up and help others. Rob Cross and Peter Gray of the University of Virginia’s business school estimate that knowledge workers spend 70-85% of their time doing this while “dealing with an avalanche of requests.”
  • The article also notes that enthusiastic, helpful employees become the go-to person for any request. They soon become a bottleneck, which weighs on their ability to do their own job and help other projects move forward — not to mention the erosive effect on their personal wellbeing from constant distraction and bombardment.
  • Over-collaboration can lead to an inability to carry out intense concentration or “deep work” — the type of distraction-free sole thinking required to power through difficult problems or resolve complex challenges.

It’s easy to see why, as businesses and economies alike strive for greater productivity, wellness is moving higher up the corporate agenda.

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As for ways to resolve the “collaboration curse”, it is not simply a matter of reversing the trend for large open spaces. Indeed there are powerful arguments for the benefits of collaborative space — as we have cited so often on Allwork.Space ever since coworking began its meteoric rise. Coworking and shared collaborative environments can create a network of support, fire up innovation, inspire others, distil loneliness and harness new networks and friendships.

The solution, it seems, is balance. For every extrovert-friendly open space, is there a quiet corner or private room where introverts and ‘deep thinkers’ can produce their finest work? At the corporate level, organisations are working to introduce greater balance into their spaces. For smaller coworking spaces with less square footage at their disposal, solutions such as cubicle-style individual office furniture (here’s one example by Steelcase) can help create semi-private zones for individual workers only when it’s needed.

Busy, well-subscribed coworking spaces may not feel the need to introduce quiet zones or screened furniture. But remember, up to 50% of the U.S. population are thought to be introvert, and lively extrovert-friendly spaces can easily become ‘typecast’. Can you afford to shun half of your potential market?

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