When Collaboration Doesn’t Work: The Importance of Solitude in the Workplace
These days it’s all about togetherness in the workplace. Companies around the country encourage teamwork and collaboration, believing these traits to be the solution to any corporate problem. Cubicle walls have lowered if not disappeared entirely, and departments spend their days with their heads together brainstorming solutions and building on ideas. Plus, the drastic increase in work-connected mobile devices has only increased the time workers spend communicating with their coworkers and bosses, even outside of the office. But is this really the most efficient way to get work done?
Corporate America has yo-yoed for the past few decades about whether or not collaboration or isolation is more important in the workplace. In the ‘80s, one poll found that more than 85 percent of employees wanted more private areas for work, and thus the era of high-walled cubicles began. Later, in the ‘90s, employees were tired of their exile; more than 50 percent clamored for better access to their coworkers. New research suggests that the pendulum is swinging once again toward the excess of open spaces and the need for solitude. However, companies’ historical method of creating privacy won’t necessarily cut it in the modern workplace.
Considering Productive Seclusion
In the past, companies created physical spaces for workers to seek privacy. If employees could not hear each other, see each other, or feel each other’s presence, they were in individual spaces meant for solitary work. While this may have worked in the past, when communication required face-to-face interaction, today’s office could be anywhere — from the office to a coffee shop to the beach — but that doesn’t make collaboration any less possible.
The use of mobile devices for work means employees are always accessible by their peers and superiors, which makes it incredibly difficult to find alone time to be creative and get work done. When mounting research suggests we come up with our best ideas when we’re by ourselves, employers need to start seriously considering how to allow their employees privacy at work.
Instead of relying simply on higher walls and closed doors to give employees the solitude they need to increase productivity and creativity, companies need to consider all avenues of communication when they begin drafting offices prime for both collaboration and isolation. Two different factors are at play whenever you discuss solitude in the modern workplace:
- Stimulation. Traditionally, this is what employers are trying to limit when they create private spaces. While noise, movement, and other distractions do fall into the category of stimulation, and thus must be limited as much as possible, some necessary tools are encompassed by this as well, like email notifications or meeting invitations. Additionally, controlling stimulation can be difficult, considering its subjectivity; one employee’s comforting music may be another employee’s cause of agitation.
- Information. The sharing and receiving of information is necessary to get work done, but the concept of information privacy has become exceedingly more complicated in the seemingly transparent world of the modern workplace. Not only must employees keep a grasp on what sensitive company data they discuss, but they must also be careful about what personal information is disseminated online or in the office. Allowing employees a private space to store information away from prying eyes is crucial to creating an area of solitude.
Creating the New Workplace
Both employers and employees have found different methods of controlling these two aspects of workplace privacy. Given the flexibility to create the workplaces ideal for their own productivity, employees employ one or more of the following strategies of finding solitude:
- Strategic anonymity. Setting up a table in a coffee shop or airport may seem to only increase distractions, but many people feel the ambient noise of these crowded places allows them to lose themselves amongst the crowd and hunker down to the task at hand.
- Selective exposure. When collaboration becomes necessary for a project, individual employees prefer to choose their own method of communication at the right time for them. This prevents coworkers from interrupting a crucial train of thought and provides the opportunity to limit shared information.
- Intentional shielding. While cubicle walls can limit visual stimulus, this doesn’t always protect workers from prying eyes or eavesdropping ears — which makes them uneasy and impacts their work. Employees would prefer to construct their own shields, whether it be taking calls in public spaces or setting up a workspace in an area where they can see approaching coworkers.
- Purposeful solitude. People don’t always seek solitude to work — sometimes alone time is the best way to take a break and let off steam. These places don’t have to be closed offices or cubicles, but a quite courtyard can be just as effective.
Companies should keep employee preferences in mind if they hope to retain the best and brightest workforce. Strategically designing the office, drafting protocol that allows for this flexibility, and encouraging signaling during times of solitude will allow employees to get the privacy they need to be the most creative and productive they can be.