Yesterday, Tim Harford posted a New York Times article on Twitter that really struck a chord with me. Judging from the number of comments I got when I posted it on Facebook, I clearly wasn’t the only one!
The article is called ‘The Rise of the New Groupthink’ and its thesis is that people don’t necessarily work better when working together. Forced teamwork, open plan offices and brainstorming may in fact be holding back people who would achieve more from working independently.
I would really like to quote the whole article and I would really recommend you read it, but a couple of lines that struck me particularly were:
“Studies show that open-plan offices make workers hostile, insecure and distracted.”
“What distinguished programmers at the top-performing companies … was how much privacy, personal workspace and freedom from interruption they enjoyed.”
In one of my previous jobs, we moved from 2-person offices into an open-plan office of around 40 people, with what was effectively a corridor down the middle. Instantly, thinking became way more difficult. In this case it was mostly because of actual distractions – people moving about, phones ringing, loud conversations. I had days that I wanted to stand on my chair and shout ‘shut up shut up shut up’. Luckily, I had access to a nice quiet computer room to do my actual thinking in. I noticed other people developing their own tactics – hiding in the lab, staying late, booking meeting rooms for meetings with themselves (only if senior enough that they thought they’d get away with it). And building little walls of books to fortify their otherwise-exposed positions.
My more recent job was better – fewer people, fewer foot traffic, more white noise – but there are still some tasks that I find way easier to do on my own. It’s all about hitting a flow state. Once I’m in the flow state, the world doesn’t exist, but for getting there… I really need to minimise the input. Sometimes having people in the room, even quiet people, just makes it feel like there isn’t enough space in my head. Yes, I’m a classic introvert. And there are some tasks – reading, writing, coding, data analysis – that just seem so much clearer when alone and without distractions.
I actually think that this is one thing that academia (well, the office-based kind) does really well. The nearly-compulsory coffee-breaks force everyone to get out of their offices and interact, sharing ideas and problems (and gossip). But then everyone can retreat back to their own little corners to get the ‘real work’ done. It’s all about getting the right balance.
The article also talks about the learning process and how learning alone is often more effective than learning in a group. This is because you can focus more time on the parts that are tricky for you. I’d make an exception there actually – I think a self-selected group of similar people can be a tremendously productive way to learn. Towards the end of my degree, I worked in the library with some fellow students and it was probably the most productive learning environment I’ve ever been in. The important factors were that everyone was silent a lot, everyone was focused, and when we had problems to discuss, the conversation was typically of use both to the person having the difficulty and the person explaining the concept (who got to test their own understanding). But I think it helped that we were effectively picking out people of very similar ability and learning styles to learn with, and that even though we were together, we were spending a significant amount of time in independent work.
I’d be really interested to know what other people think about their work environments! Most people I know are introverted techies, so I’ve been surprised to see that some people actually appreciate being put in an open office because it’s so much easier to deal with people. Others dream of having the opportunity for total solitude. What do you think?