In her new book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, attorney Susan Cain pits two starkly different work styles against each other. On one side, we have the pro-collaboration, open workspace plan camp. On the other, we have the solitude-is-good supporters clamoring to keep their offices.
This debate on the best type of work style has important implications for workspace design and office environment. It also delves into fundamental questions about human nature. While we are social animals, drawn instinctively to work and cooperate with others, we are also territorial creatures who enjoy and guard our personal autonomy.
For now, open-plan workspace advocates have the upper hand. Collaboration is in vogue, the much-touted ingredient in the magic alchemy to enhance worker well-being and productivity, and the spark to make companies more innovative and creative, as psychologist R. Keith Sawyer describes in his Greater Good essay on “group flow.”
“Decades of scientific research have revealed that great creativity almost always springs from collaboration, conversation, and social networks,” writes Sawyer, a professor of psychology and education at Washington University in St. Louis, MO. “And research shows that when a group is in flow, it’s more likely to resolve problems with surprising and creative solutions.”
As a result, open workspaces are the hot new trend in office design. Numerous predictions about the “future of work” envision minimalist office environments devoid of walls, not a cubicle in sight, vast plains of people working alongside each other. Take out the dividers, the thinking goes, and people will naturally gravitate toward meaningful collaborations.
Even freelancers, telecommuters, and all kinds of remote workers who could shun the office are now being wooed back by coworking and collaborative workspaces that allow them to rent a desk for an hour, a day, or a year, working shoulder to shoulder with like-minded independent professionals. Coworking spaces are proving to be seedbeds of innovation and collaboration.
But in the rush to open-plan, collaborative offices, we might be forgetting the virtues of solitude, and undervaluing the insights and contributions of introverted personalities. It may seem odd to look for lessons in collaboration from the introvert’s point of view, for collaborative workspaces are natural playgrounds for the gregarious extrovert. But as the debate on the “power of the quiet” continues, there are some simple lessons worth considering for those eyeing collaborative workspaces—but worry about loss of privacy and personal boundaries.
Group collaboration catalyzes creativity
Collaboration isn’t just trendy. Many studies offer evidence for the group in helping people work better. In R. Keith Sawyer’s study of jazz performances, Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, Sawyer made this observation: “The group has the ideas, not the individual musicians.”
According to Sawyer, more often than not, true innovation emerges from an improvised process and draws from trial-by-error and many inputs, “with sparks gathering together over time, multiple dead ends, and the reinterpretation of previous ideas.” Sawyer’s conception of group flow is a permutation of Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s theory of flow, the heightened state of consciousness among individuals at their creative peaks. To Sawyer, the group can be remarkably more creative than the individual because of the epiphanies and discoveries that come out of the sharing of ideas.
Google is the classic case study of the success of the group. Many of Google’s flagship products—Gmail and Google News—were dreamt up and developed by informal groups that got together. Google has since deployed “grouplets” for initiatives that cover broader changes throughout the organization. One Google grouplet got engineers to write their own testing code to reduce the incidence of bugs in software code. The intrepid grouplet even came up with a creative campaign based on posting episodes discussing new and interesting testing techniques on the bathroom stalls. “Testing on the Toilet” spread fast. The campaign ultimately developed enough momentum to become a de facto part of the coding culture.
And throughout history there are innumerable examples of artists, scientists, and thinkers who came up with groundbreaking ideas after long bouts of consultation with others. Albert Einstein’s most famous contribution to science, his theory of relativity, may have benefitted from conversations with his longtime mathematician friend, Marcel Grossman.
Grossman convinced Einstein to consider an altogether new mathematical framework drawn from geometry and differential calculus to elucidate his theories. Goaded by his friend, Einstein looked up the work of another mathematician, Bernhard Riemann, who specialized in geometry. Einstein read everything he could by Riemann, which ultimately unlocked his theory of relativity. Einstein had struggled to find the right mathematical language to capture his ideas; Riemann’s work gave him the vocabulary he needed to express his ideas.
This experience—a connection or conversation with other people that unblocks or illuminates a problem—has been dubbed “accelerated serendipity” by collaborative work advocates.
The case for the solo spirit
And yet, as Susan Cain and others have shown, there is also evidence that draws these pat conclusions about working in groups into question. It makes me wonder: maybe, there’s more to toiling in solitude, away from teamwork and brainstorming, than collaborative advocates (myself included) would like to admit.
Cain cites a study where psychologists found many workers unhappy with open floor plans, with no dividers and very little personal space. In this workplace design, people felt more like crammed battery hens in an industrial coop, rather than an enlightened group of collaborators. Giving people places to hide actually made them more productive, the study concluded. People were happier away from distractions and needless interruptions, and less stressed as a result of having the ‘quiet’ zones to concentrate.
There are also numerous cases that show that group-focused brainstorming sessions can actually backfire or hinder creative thinking. When we’re in groups presenting a new idea to others, we might defer too quickly to people who disagree with us. People succumb to peer pressure. More dominant, charismatic members of the group can take over and dictate an agenda. This phenomenon is dubbed “Groupthink,” an unfortunate but common outcome in which the majority thinking of the group overwhelms the quirky, unusual ideas from individuals. In the fuss over whether or not to knock down those cubicle walls, we might be overlooking the virtues that working alone can have on the collaborative and creative process.
Collaboration lessons from introverts
So what are the implications of recognizing the value of solitude and introversion in the era of collaborative workspaces? In other words, what lessons can we glean from introverts who might be discontented with too much togetherness and networking?
1. Balance having open spaces with private spaces.
As much as I enjoy coworking spaces with their open designs, I’ve also visited collaborative offices where people worked in warren-like rooms, but then came together when a project called for it, or during lunch or coffee breaks. Even with all its nooks and crannies for people to escape to, the office was a very social place: they swapped ideas, laughed together, and visited each other for chitchat. While they weren’t working alongside each other, a distinct collaborative community was present nonetheless.
Some collaborative workspaces are recognizing the complementary dynamic of having open and private spaces. ThinkSpace in Redmond, Washington offers a hybrid model of shared office space for those looking for the best of both worlds— the openness of a coworking space with the privacy of an office. “We basically have a cross between the traditional coworking spaces and executive office suites,” says its founder, Peter Chee. “We do have open coworking spaces here, but we also have private office space within our entire building, as well.”
It’s this flexibility that the businesses there enjoy. “What we keep hearing from people is that they like the community, but they also like being able to keep some privacy,” says Chee. “Something that we’ve tailored our model to do is create a sense of community, but also give people their privacy to run their businesses.”
Satellite Telework Centers in Northern California attracts remote workers who may not be looking for outright collaborative relationships within spaces but who want the opportunity to network. According to co-founder Jim Graham, “Although we believe collaboration and an environment of community are really important, we also recognize that a good number of our members do their collaboration with co-workers, bosses and clients somewhere else and come to the Satellite for the uninterrupted time they need to focus on getting their work done.”
Jim insists that it’s all about providing options and offering a more muted collectivist buzz for members. “Some people want more privacy, so the farther into the space you go, the more privacy you have via screens and cabinets mounted on the cubicle walls. Our goal was to make it as effortless as possible for someone to walk in, select a workspace, and get to work.”
2. Let the collaboration develop naturally.
Even the most reserved writer, designer, or engineer can benefit from being around others. Sometimes, all you need is just the right momentum or little nudge that others can provide to reach that unexpected insight that will enhance a project you’re working on.
But if you’re not keen on small talk by the water cooler during the workday, try attending social events with colleagues and co-workers after hours. Videogame developer Parker Whitney, based in IndyHall, a coworking space in Philadelphia, proposes saving most of your social efforts for outside events. “Attend the happy hour events. These events are great times to meet people. You don’t need to pull their headphones off during the day and tell them your life story.” Brownbag lunches, Meetups with fellow coworkers, and scheduled lectures and talks are other opportunities to be social with others in measured, unstructured doses.
3. Invention is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration—so give people the privacy and time to work.
Collaborative workspace advocates argue that our best ideas come from from the cross-pollination of different people working in different fields, different projects. In many ways, this is absolutely true, but we shouldn’t overlook the crucial steps that often go on behind-the-scenes. Before ideas are shared in a collaborative setting they must be first developed. This means alone time.
Companies and coworking spaces should provide a refuge not only in terms of space but also in terms of work demands. Alone time doesn’t signify that you’re a misanthrope or antisocial. Sometimes the constant chatter, networking, and pressure to “contribute” to boundless conversations can be tiring after awhile. One example is the constant convening at meetings and brainstorming sessions that can kill creativity when nascent ideas are stamped out too soon.
Ideas need time to simmer and develop on their own before they are flung out into the world of public scrutiny. While our best ideas may come after consulting others, those ‘Eureka!’ moments often occur when we are alone with our thoughts, ruminating over piles of notes on our desk, or when we’ve had time to think and connect the dots. Epiphanies are less likely to take place in the heat of conversation and activity.
4. Don’t underestimate your quiet members.
In a New York Times op-ed, Susan Cain writes: “Culturally, we’re often so dazzled by charisma that we overlook the quiet part of the creative process. Consider Apple. In the wake of Steve Jobs’s death, we’ve seen a profusion of myths about the company’s success. Most focus on Mr. Jobs’s supernatural magnetism and tend to ignore the other crucial figure: a kindly, introverted engineering wizard, Steve Wozniak.”
In the best scenario of creative collaboration, ideas we couldn’t have developed further on our own, acquire new life in the company of others. Others take your idea, which may never have fully matured in your hands alone, and generate new ideas or new leads that enhance and build on your own thinking. But before that wonderful chain reaction can be set into motion, there’s work that needs to be done, and that exceedingly takes place with the individual.
5. Recognize that collaboration can take many forms.
The brand of collaboration that open workspace designers and coworking advocates envision can sometimes be a bit overwhelming to people who require quiet zones and long bouts of concentration to work. In fact, the fear of noise and distraction is the number one reason many of my freelancer and entrepreneur friends refuse to work at a coworking space. For many people, the open plan can be unsettling. These are creative people that understand that ideas emerge from interaction—they just don’t want constant interaction.
As Shareable.net editor Neal Gorenflo puts it, “The innovation process is an essentially social one. Ideas emerge from a milieu, and then some subset (a small team or individual) of that milieu goes away to focus on a single idea. There are moments where individuals work on a small piece of the idea alone, but in the context of a larger social process.” Workspace designers need to recognize the collaborative dynamic that emerges at the group and individual level.
Ultimately, with just the right tweaks, workspaces can let us indulge our two very human impulses: our craving for privacy, and our need to be around other people. “The workplace needs to allow for more than the simple binary of alone vs. together,” says Allison Arief, a writer on design and architecture. “There are many reasons for densify-ing office spaces, varying from a more efficient use of resources to a more connected workforce. Achieving flexibility, creating spaces that serve a diverse workforce—that is where workplace design should be headed.”
In the meantime, maybe designers should consider leaving a few walls up.