For decades now we’ve been told that collaboration is critical to enhanced performance, creativity, and productivity.
Managers have been encouraged to shift from authoritarian styles of management toward more collaborative approaches.
Creating Collaborative Space
A similar shift has been underway with work itself. Less and less frequently are workers tasked as solo performers. Instead they are urged to see themselves as part of a team, collaborating with other team members to achieve a task.
Like any good thing, however, collaboration can be overdone. While extensive collaboration is both stimulating and envigorating for some workers, others are best served when collaboration comes in smaller bites. Because of how these workers are wired neurologically, an undue amount of collaboration is distracting to them and may actually impede their effectiveness.
This was the finding from a recent study at Harvard Business School. It evaluated how open plan offices impact productivity. In these types of offices, workers share a large open space, with minimal physical and visual barriers separating workers from one another.
The purpose of this arrangement is to create an environment where workers interact effortlessly and routinely. This interaction, it is assumed, will stimulate greater amounts of collaboration and more joint efforts. And studies have repeatedly validated this basic assumption.
But now the Harvard study raises an important caution. For some workers, the study found, the visual and auditory distraction of an open office leads to lost overall productivity. Such settings make it difficult for them to concentrate and stay focused on the task at hand.
As a result, the volume and quality of their work suffers. And in many instances this impact is serious enough to offset productivity gains which collaboration might otherwise yield.
When this happens, according to the study, workers who are battling distraction begin to interact defensively with others. They resent further interruption when they are already struggling to be productive. This defensiveness, in turn, works against the very spirit of collaboration which the open space office was meant to engender.
Accommodating Work Style Differences
What these findings point to is the wide disparity in what workers require in order to maximize their contribution. Most managers today readily recognize that no two workers are motivated exactly the same way.
But these same managers may not take this individuality into account when they assign people to a specific work environment. The very settings and surroundings which spur productivity in one worker may in fact impair it or even undercut it with others.
Although the “take-away” from this study relates to open plan offices, the lesson here is equally relevant to all management decisions about individual workers, where they should work, how they should work, and how much interaction with others is forced upon them. Work styles are just as unique as patterns of motivation. Astute managers will always take that uniqueness into account whenever they make work assignments.
If you want to see more details from this study, check out this blog from Fast Company.