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Collaboration versus Concentration: The Office

Posted by Brook White on Wed, Nov 07, 2018 @ 09:47 AM

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Quick quiz for fans of The Office: Can you remember where each employee sat in the Scranton Dunder Mifflin office?  Even if you can’t get it perfect, chances are you can close your eyes and envision the layout.  The office was open with very few physical boundaries between desks.  Employees could see each other face-to-face and hear one another at all times.  It was a set deliberately configured to create the awkward interactions and comedic conflict that made the series so popular.  The design was perfect for sitcom parody, but it was disastrous for productivity.  

The open office concept has gained popularity in recent years, even becoming a sort of corporate status symbol suggesting that a company values openness, collaboration, and innovation.  However, recent research suggests the open office has the exact opposite effect on employees – reducing in-person interactions, driving up email and IM use, and diminishing productivity.  Several reasons have been given for these results, including: offices are too noisy and distracting, employees feel a loss of privacy and more stress, and individuals prioritize “looking busy” over doing impactful work.  

To quote Michael Scott, “We don’t hate it.  We just don’t like it at all, and it’s terrible.”

deep work, concentrationThe problem is not that having places of open collaboration are bad, it’s that an office cannot be constructed around this virtue alone.  Employees also need time for distraction-free, heads-down, concentration work.  In Deep Work, Cal Newport praises an alternative layout that maximizes the benefits of both “serendipitous encounters and isolated deep thinking,” which he dubs a hub-and-spoke design.  The concept is simple: have quiet personal areas of working that minimize distraction and interruption that are connected to large common areas that facilitate teamwork, mutual inspiration, brainstorming, and idea sharing.  

We took these lessons to heart when designing our new office space.  

collaboration and team workThe upper floors, which will house most employees’ work spaces, are built around the hub-and-spoke design.  Collaboration spaces (conference rooms, war rooms, huddle rooms, the pantry) are centrally located with cubes and offices spreading out from there.  Within the individual workspace areas, we alternate rows of cubes and offices which will dampen sound and prevent large areas of noisy cubes.  We are also providing more spaces for quiet concentration away from your desk with Focus Rooms, offices equipped with treadmill desks for shared use, and Libraries.  On the first floor, in addition to the main conference room suite, there will be more opportunities for collaboration with a much larger Hub and adjoining Game Room, and larger Patio.

We are really excited about the new space, but at the end of the day, it is still just an office.  A building doesn’t make us special.  Our employees do.  The best our physical workspace can do is provide a structure conducive to good work, but the onus is on each of us to adopt and implement productive behaviors.  

A primary goal of our new headquarters is to build a workspace that makes people excited about where they work.  We look forward to seeing how the move to the new building supports Deep Work and improves our collective productivity.

Ryan2Ryan Bailey, MA is a Senior Clinical Researcher at Rho.  He has over 10 years of experience conducting multicenter asthma research studies, including the Inner City Asthma Consortium (ICAC) and the Community Healthcare for Asthma Management and Prevention of Symptoms (CHAMPS) project.  Ryan is also part of the team at Rho that encourages and facilitates Deep Work.