The Cost of Collaboration

Regular readers know that Irreal has disdain for open plan offices and those who perpetrate them on their hapless employees but, somehow, never on themselves. These office plans are always justified on the grounds of “increased collaboration” but there's a nasty, suspicious corner of Irreal's soul that suspects it's really all about saving money.

People who actually do creative work that requires concentration have always known that these plans are a disaster and very destructive of productivity. Now the The Economist is reporting what sensible people have understood all along: the cost of the increased collaboration that these plans bring exceeds their benefits.

As the economist says, “Oddly, the cult of collaboration has reached its apogee in the very arena where the value of uninterrupted concentration is at its height: knowledge work.” That would be our work spaces.

The good news is that a backlash is setting in. There's an increasing body of research showing that, as Peter Drucker argues, you can do real work or you can go to meetings but you can't do both. If you put workers in a noisy, disruptive environment, if you drag them into an endless series of meetings, the “deep work” that is the raison d'être of knowledge workers becomes impossible.

Part of the problem, the Economist says, is that while it's easy for management to measure collaboration, it's not so easy to measure the benefits of deep work. And, of course, managers gotta manage so we get days filled with meetings and memos. It's a rare manager with the wisdom to give his workers the freedom to do their work unencumbered with distractions.

It's a good article and well worth the five minutes of your time that it will take to read it.

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  • My employer put the money into electrically powered standing desks. They rock. So do offices; more so.