Collaboration is so often touted as being the productivity future of the workplace, with open concept offices becoming the new norm. Yet at the same time, just as many articles are arguing that it is an alienating force that causes top performers to leave a company.
Which is quite a striking contrast! So which side is right?
No matter which side you are on, communication methods and technology are changing rapidly and constantly. This impacts organizations and how they are run, making collaboration an important part of staying abreast of these changes. Missing the boat spells certain doom for even the most established firms, just ask Sears. Having spaces where employees can collaborate, and improvise, can spur creativity, and performance.
This isn’t a new idea. Darwin saw in his study of animals and their evolution, the benefits to survival in working together. “In the long history of humankind (and animal kind), those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” (Darwin, 1859) This lesson from evolution seems to be just as applicable to management and business.
According to data that was collected by Rob Cross, Reb Rebele, and Adam Grant from over 300 organizations, time that has been spent by leaders and their teams on collaborative endeavours has increased by over 50% over the past twenty years.
Sandboxes: A productivity boon
Here at Viewpoint our investment management branch (Viewpoint Investment Partners) employees can work closely together in what is affectionately known as the “Sandbox.” While Ideas are shared, help is given, and problems are solved, relationships are also made, and trust is developed.
Rather serendipitously, an article was published in January of this year touting the benefits of having a collaborative “sandbox” in the office, and what makes it a perfect analogy.
"Sandboxes are venues that bring together all kinds of kids in an open but finite space that encourages exploration and interaction with little threat of harm."
"The Serious Business of Sandboxes" by David Clarke discusses what every conceptual sandbox needs to be successful, and how they breakdown organizational silos, and allow for better understanding of business objectives and goals, enabling initiatives and relationships to be connected throughout the entire organization.
Clarke’s Four key features of successful sandboxes include:
Types of “collaborative resources”
Collaboration is created through human and social capital. In their article for Harvard Business Review that was mentioned earlier, Cross, Rebele, and Grant also discuss this human and social capital through three different types of “collaborative resources” people have that creates value for others.
The authors are quick to point out that these resources are not equal. People who share and collaborate through informational and social means do not deplete their supply. What has been passed on, such as knowledge or network access, is still available for use by the person who shared it. But personal resources are finite, and each collaborative effort depletes that source, leaving less available for other projects and personal work.
A 2013 Huffington Post poll asked American men and women to estimate how often they contribute to others in a number of different ways. The poll found that men were 36% more likely to share knowledge and expertise – or utilizing their informational resources. While women were 66% more likely to assist others in need – using their personal resources of time and energy.
This is of particular importance when it comes to light that it is often women who tend to take on the majority of collaborative work in the office. The stereotype of women being care-givers leads many to expect female employees to help others, mentor and train junior colleagues, as well as recruit new hires, resulting in greater levels of emotional exhaustion and burnout.
An important point to make to employees when encouraging collaboration in the workplace is to ensure women in particular use different types of their resources, not just personal.
Collaboration: A productivity bane
Seemingly just as abundant as the articles that toot collaboration’s horn, are articles that are just as adamant that it is the worst trend to take over offices spaces.
Geoffrey James, writing for Inc. holds nothing back, “While the term is a bit fuzzy, what's usually meant by "collaboration" is 1) plenty of ad-hoc meetings and 2) open plan offices that increase the likelihood that that such meetings take place.”
James’ argument revolves around open-plan offices, that invariably come with a higher incidence of interruptions and noise pollution, negating any benefits of collaboration and actually decreasing productivity.
This open and social concept can also lead to top performers and introverted employees being driven to quit. A recent study published in Applied Psychology states that the problem is with mediocre employees often seeing top performers as a threat to either their position in the company, or to their sense of self-worth. This can result in top performers being socially isolated through rumors, or sabotage.
And while some extroverts seem to thrive in a more chaotic environment, introverted employees on the other hand, often find such spaces draining. This can lead to these employees leaving the company completely, or to work from home, where collaboration would be minimal, and they run the risk of further social isolation.
Collaboration doesn’t mean agreement
Collaboration, and being told to ‘work as a team’ are often interchangeable mentalities, but all too often that means everyone should be agreeing with one another. The promise of higher levels of innovation, creativity, and performance, is often broken by this need to agree, the common workplace is in desperate need for more constructive criticism and conflict. Done properly and with respect, disagreement can improve ideas and expose risks, leading to better decision making.
Devil’s advocates should be celebrated, as they question the reliability of evidence and propose alternate explanations for problems. “By defining a clear devil’s advocate role, you legitimize challenges to the quality and relevance of the evidence you’re using to make a decision.” (Davey, 2017)
Collaborative spaces may or may not be a fad, but collaboration isn’t. Each business is run differently, and has different uses for collaboration. All organizations can benefit from assessing what their needs are before making the expensive commitment to changing the office real-estate.
Sources used for this post:
Clarke, D. (2017). The Serious Business of Sandboxes. strategy+business. Retrieved 5 June 2017, from http://www.strategy-business.com/article/The-Serious-Business-of-Sandboxes?gko=5feac
Davey, L. (2017). If Your Team Agrees on Everything, Working Together Is Pointless. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved 5 June 2017, from https://hbr.org/2017/01/if-your-team-agrees-on-everything-working-together-is-pointless
James, G. (2017). 'Collaboration' Creates Mediocrity, Not Excellence, According to Science. Inc.com. Retrieved 7 June 2017, from https://www.inc.com/geoffrey-james/collaboration-creates-mediocrity-not-excellence-according-to-science.html
Cross, R., Rebele, R., & Grant, A. (2016). Collaborative Overload. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved 6 June 2017, from https://hbr.org/2016/01/collaborative-overload