Too much collaboration is hurting worker productivity

When you’re most productive.
When you’re most productive.
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Companies love collaboration—it’s become the go-to approach to solve corporate problems and spur innovation. Yet by emphasizing it at the expense of solitary work, employers choke worker productivity and satisfaction.

A new report by Gensler, the global workplace design and architecture firm, found that workers are spending more time in focus work but feel less effective at it than before.

“Collaboration can be taken too far. It actually has diminishing returns,” said Diane Hoskins, co-CEO of Gensler, in an interview with Quartz. ”When everybody’s collaborating around you, you can’t focus.”

In the last few years, increased collaboration is both intentional, encouraged by managers intent on fostering innovation and shared resources, and unintentional, partly the result of corporate cutbacks in office space during the recession. Much of the reduced space affected collaboration areas, which pushed conversations and collaboration into the general work spaces, said Hoskins. “Everything was squeezed” and so workers felt less able to focus, the Gensler survey of 2,035 knowledge workers shows.

Now they feel even more crowded and unable to focus as corporate payrolls have inched up. Some feel that with more workers on “kitchen tables” or desks in close proximity they can never get anything done.

“If you diminish focus, it’s like the house of cards starts to fall apart. It’s almost foundational,” she said.

Certainly other research has found open floor plans can make workers less productive and more likely to get sick.

So what are companies doing to create places where workers can concentrate on their tasks?  Intel’s Software and Services Group gives workers four hours of “think time” tracked on a group calendar so they can block out distractions and tune in on important problems or work.  Office furniture maker Steelcase has created a gathering space equipped with teleconferencing devices, information projections and a round table.

Gensler is encouraging balanced arrangements so workers can have a few different environments to use depending on the mode they’re in. One company put up a C-shaped pod in the middle of the desks with room for four or five people to sit and share. Others have created small meeting rooms “where you can take conversations to” so workers at their desks can focus, Hoskins said. Some even set up outdoor gathering places for informal meetings or break times together.

Or some just may go home to get quiet focused time, and then come into the office for meetings and social connections. Those who can choose where to work still spend about 70% of their time in the office, Gensler reported. Workers who can choose their environment are more satisfied with their job, and rate themselves as more effective, especially in their focus work.