Does Too Much Collaboration at Work Hurt Productivity?

Most Workers Struggle to Work Effectively.

According to the global architecture and design company, Gensler, who recently released their 2013 US Workplace Survey, most workers struggle to work effectively. A Toronto paper picked up the story with a headline stating, “Too much collaboration at work hurts productivity.” Does this mean that your organization should not strive for more collaboration?

No. It means that if you don’t strike the right balance, it can lead to unwanted and potentially negative results. Finding the right design for a collaboration workspace the right way is key to finding this equilibrium.

Getting it Wrong. Then Getting it Right.

Malcolm Gladwell illustrates an example of the advertising agency TBWAChiatDay in his New Yorker article Designs for Working. He cites, “The firm had been engaged in a radical, and in some ways disastrous, experiment with a “nonterritorial” office: no one had a desk or any office equipment of his own. It was a scheme that courted failure by neglecting all the ways in which an office is a sort of neighbourhood.

By contrast, their new office is an almost perfect embodiment of Jacobsian principles of community. The agency is in a huge old warehouse, three stories high and the size of three football fields. It is informally known as Advertising City, and that’s what it is: a kind of artfully constructed urban neighbourhood. … Sprinkled throughout the building are meeting rooms and project areas and plenty of nooks where employees can closet themselves when they need to.”

An Effective Balance Between Order and Chaos is Required.

Steve Johnson, author of “Where Good Ideas Come From”, comments on the TBWAChiatDay first new office.

“By all accounts it was a colossal failure, precisely because it traded excessive order for excessive chaos … To work in an open office is to work exclusively in public, which it turns out to have just as many drawbacks as working entirely in your private lab.”

The Concept of Liquid Networks for Getting the Right Balance.

Johnson’s book introduces the concept of “Liquid Networks” as a metaphor for the right balance.  Liquid, as opposed to gaseous or solid.  A gaseous network is too volatile, the chaos referred to above, and a solid network is too ridged to sustain idea flow.

Johnson cites the work of Kevin Dunbar, McGill University psychologist indicates, “Even with all the advanced technology of a leading molecular biology lab, the most productive tool for generating good ideas remains a circle of humans at a table, talking shop.  The lab meeting creates an environment where new combinations can occur, where information can spill over from one project to another.  When you work alone in an office, peering into a microscope, your ideas can get trapped in place, stuck in your own initial biases.  The social flow of the group conversation turns that private solid into a liquid network.”

Dunbar’s generative conference room meetings remind us that the physical architecture of our work environments can have a transformative effect on the quality of our ideas.

“The quickest way to freeze a liquid network is to stuff people into private offices behind closed doors, which is one reason so many Web-era companies have designed their work environments around common spaces where casual mingling and interdepartmental chatter happens without any formal planning.”

Back to the Gladwell article …

“But when employees sit chained to their desks, quietly and industriously going about their business, an office is not functioning as it should. That’s because innovation—the heart of the knowledge economy—is fundamentally social. Ideas arise as much out of casual conversations as they do out of formal meetings. More precisely, as one study after another has demonstrated, the best ideas in any workplace arise out of casual contacts among different groups within the same company.  [Johnson’s Liquid Network] …

Innovation comes from the interactions of people at a comfortable distance from one another, neither too close nor too far.  …

The catch is that getting people in an office to bump into people from another department is not so easy as it looks.”

Johnson says that,

“… if there is a single maxim through [his] book’s arguments, it is that we are better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them. … Good ideas may not want to be free, but they do want to connect, fuse, recombine.  They want to reinvent themselves by crossing conceptual borders.  They want to complete each other as much as they want to compete.”

Or, simply put – to be more innovative you have to be more collaborative.  You need to put yourself in a position where you are bumping into, colliding with and spilling into other people’s perspectives and ideas.  Because doing so will trigger new thoughts and ideas that you wouldn’t explore in isolation.

The Gensler study goes on to say that, “… focus and collaboration are complementary work modes. … We know that both focus and collaboration are crucial to the success of any organization in today’s economy.”  In a balanced workplace, the employees thrive.

4 Different Modes of Working.

A Steelcase white paper, “How the workplace can improve collaboration”, June 2010, talks about a shift in the nature of work from more individual focused to more collaboration focused.

“Among the key findings was validation that a fundamental shift has occurred: most work today is done in collaboration with others versus individually. Moreover, rather than it being a segmented activity done in designated destinations such as a conference room, collaboration

is now almost constant and it threads throughout the entire workday. It occurs at desks, in hallways, in team spaces, on smart phones and via the Internet, and it’s often spontaneous and informal versus planned in advance. When the workspace is designed to fully support the new realities of collaboration, better learning, more innovation and faster decision-making can result.”

The white paper goes on to say that its study has revealed that people actually need 4 different modes of working:

  1. Focus Time
  2. Collaboration Time
  3. Learning
  4. Socializing

The mix will depend on who you are and what you do.  The balance of the 4 modes will vary.

How do remote workers fit into this “Collaboration soup”?

Part 2, we explore whether being in the same physical space is critical to increasing collaboration.

If you would like further information on how to obtain the right balance of various working modes for your organization, please contact us.

What Type of Space Do You Need for the Workplace?

Your Connected Path to the Future

We recently completed a consulting engagement to align the UC technology and room systems technology of a large organization. Strategically, we delivered a comprehensive roadmap to align their diverse technologies and move them forward with a cohesive UC&C framework. This in turn would set them up for significant opportunities to capture long term ROI from operational, procedural and strategic sources.

And then, they had a re-organization.

New Challenges Arising From a Re-Org

163984053All of a sudden, the new Executive in charge of IT Infrastructure had a lot on his plate and the execution of the UC&C Roadmap was just a small piece.

The client didn’t have time to:

  1. Absorb the material
  2. Review the recommendations or
  3. Understand the roadmap and the strategic impact it could have on his organization.

Immediate operational decisions were required that impacted the long term UC&C direction. And he didn’t have time to build a relationship of trust with the consultants that had laid out the future roadmap for the organization.

Saving Your Way Into the Future?

Like all of us who are faced with making decisions constrained by limited time and looming deadlines, he had to rely on what he knew.

He started to eliminate strategic elements of the technology for the Room System standards because he didn’t understand why they were required or how they fit in. He thought he knew what was important, because he’s been in IT for 25+ years.

With the challenges in front of him, he planned to “save” his way into the future.

Over the last dozen years, often the business method of coping with change is to cut expenses. This is especially true in large organizations where a change in direction is slow to take effect. Cutting expenses on the other hand is quick to put in place.

But this is a slippery slope that’s hard to get off once you’re on it and it certainly won’t put your organization on the path to innovation and “Blue Oceans”.

Macro Market Trends

There are two current macro trends that I feel historians will look back at and use to define our time in history.

  1. The pace of change has gone exponential. We are at an inflection point in the rate of change and the impact is profound. You have to innovate to keep up with, let alone stay ahead of the inevitable – changeGary Hamel has done some compelling work showing why we can’t do things the way we used to.
  2. The end of the Industrial Age and the beginning of the Connection Economy. Seth Godin writes about this. This shift is having a profound impact on businesses as things change.

ET Group helps organizations become more connected so they can better collaborate and innovate.

To do this effectively requires an understanding of how different disciplines or business offerings interact and come together as the nature of how we work changes.

The Workplace Of The Future

Meeting rooms are where workspace and technology really come together. Room systems must be effective places to meet where both the physical and virtual world intersect seamlessly. They must contain the right mix of conferencing technologies to enable the required level of collaboration and this will naturally lead to innovation.

The figure on the right shows the different disciplines that have always been separate, yet related and are now critically connected.

As the world changes, how is your business space requirements changing? After people costs, space costs are often the second most significant operational cost requirements of a business.

Note: The importance of organizational culture and the need to focus on users and adoption for any significant change you introduce to your organization is not being discounted. This is a fundamental requirement.

Rethink Your Collaboration Workspace

We created this Infographic that highlights some interesting stats about the changing nature of work and how companies are adapting by:

To do this effectively and enable people to remotely collaborate, your room systems technology must align with your workers personal technology or a UC&C strategy. Note that 72% of people STILL come into the office to collaborate.

This is true whether your organization has 3 or 3,000 meeting rooms.

Meeting rooms are a scarce resource. Meeting rooms are an important part of your organization’s collaborative capabilities.

Are your rooms ready to conduct business in the Connection Economy? We can help design the perfect space for hybrid workcontact us.

Do you Lack Meeting Room Space? Without Exception, Every Company or Agency I Speak with has This Problem

The Inevitable Problem of Not Having Enough Meeting Room Space

The nature of work has been changing from less individual focus-time work, to more group collaboration work.  The result: Time spent in meetings has increased significantly.

This doesn’t mean that all meetings are effective or that individual time is unimportant.  But, there is a trend towards an increasing amount of time working with others to solve problems, and to collaborate and innovate in the workplace. If you don’t have the right design for your workspace your collaborative efficiency can be hindered.

“…Research has shown that while individual work might sometimes result in a faster answer, collaboration consistently delivers deeper and richer ideas because of the broad perspectives and cross-pollination of ideas that teams can offer…” 360 Research

“A Steelcase joint research study with Corenet Global found that two-thirds of organizations collaborate between 60% to 80% of the time. There’s good reason for it — collaboration works. Research has shown that while individual work might sometimes result in a faster answer, collaboration consistently delivers deeper and richer ideas because of the broad perspectives and cross-pollination of ideas that teams can offer. But whether alone or in a group, the drive for innovation requires greater creativity.” 360 Research

The reality is building collaborative solutions means more meeting space is required.

Two Trends Working Against the Availability of Meeting Space

1. Companies Are Reducing Their Real Estate Footprint (Less Space = Less Rooms)

Often the biggest fixed cost a company has is their real estate.  Some are reducing their space to save money but most just don’t need as much real estate as they used to.

Why Not? 

More flexible work policies allow people to work away from the office such as at home, on customer premises or even on the road. Secondly, companies are redesigning their workspace to accommodate more people in less space while making the workspace much better to work in. Finally, personal computing devices are allowing workers to take their work with them anywhere they go.

I have heard clients say that they can “shoot a cannon off” on a floor and no one would get hurt.  People are just not in the office as much.  Some will even argue it is easier to get individual work done when you are out of the office.

I have a friend in the Commercial Real Estate market, who visits clients and often tells them they have too much real estate because they just aren’t utilizing the space the way they used to.

2. Organizations Do Not Effectively Use the Rooms They Have

As it can be really tough to get a room or space to meet in, you’d think it makes sense to utilize the space that you already have right? Unfortunately rooms often sit idle more than they should because the systems are not in place to manage these spaces properly.

What Happens?

People book a meeting room and then plans change but they forget to free up the meeting room. This is how meeting space is wasted.  Offices are left empty when their owner is away – another wasted opportunity for meeting space. Meetings take longer than they should for a number of reasons none of which are related to how the actual meeting is conducted. These are examples of wasted time and valuable meeting spaces.

Another example of wasting time is “finding a place to meet”.  As per Steelcase Workplace Surveys:

This is costly for organizations and has a real impact on productivity.

On the Bright Side, There Are Ways to Combat Both Trends That Work Against the Availability of Meeting Space

This table provides you with multiple solutions for solving the inevitable problem of not having enough meeting room space.

Getting More Space From Less Space How to More Effectively Use Meeting Rooms
Move from less “I” space to more “We” space – more flexible space Scheduling systems
Virtual meetings Enabling faster start time
Automate meeting wrap up
Make technology easier to use

I will discuss the details around the solutions, which offset having less real estate in our next blog.

Identifying your lack of meeting space is half the battle. The next step is about finding the right solution for your organization. Contact us to discuss the situation in your office and stay tuned for our next blog Part 2: How to Get More Space From Less Space – Factors Offsetting Less Real Estate, where I will delve deeper into the solutions in the table above which help to make meeting collaboratively easier, by making more ‘meeting space’ available.