Collaboration now looks like absorption
Collaboration is a mainstay of the modern workplace. Since Covid, the mass media has been awash with grand proclamations about the changes organisations are making to their workplace to enhance collaboration. What has been missing from much of the discussion has been a recognition that collaboration has changed. How we collaborate has gone from being exclusively a group activity, to something we can do together but apart. Most of us are now used to collaborating through a screen with our geographically dispersed colleagues.
That change fundamentally alters the concept of activity-based working. Most activity-based working environments are built around the notion of greater transparency and openness. Partitions are removed and replaced with large open spaces designed to encourage in-person collaboration and creativity. It is ironic then that these large spaces are now the opposite of what we need in order to collaborate. Instead, we need small spaces that offer privacy and quiet so as not to cause distraction to everyone around us, or be disturbed by other activities in the office. I can't have been the only one who couldn't hear themselves thinking while trying to participate in a video call in a large open space.
These small spaces have historically been few and far between. They were seen as being antagonistic to the openness and transparency that modern workplaces are celebrated for. People who wanted to go and 'hide' in these spaces were seen as transgressing somehow, or not participating fully in the concept of activity-based working. The lack of these spaces is clear from the huge orders for phone booths that furniture companies have received in the last couple of years.
Of course, none of this means that in-person collaboration is not important. In fact, it is arguably more important now than ever before, being as it is a rare event for many of us. It just shouldn't come at the expense of quiet spaces that facilitate a different form of collaboration. It's also true that absorption in the more traditional sense, to feel 'in the zone', is still important. For many people, the ability to get individual focused work done in the office is harder. People now have 'firebreak' days at home to be able to get in the zone away from the relentless need to collaborate in the office, either in-person or through the screen.
This ability to get in the zone, or absorption, is actually important for engagement. The feeling of being engrossed in work and time passing quickly is one of the key antecedents of engagement. People who feel engaged in their work tend to be more committed and have a better sense of wellbeing.
So it's simple – the office should be all things to all people. Or in the real world, it should provide spaces for both in-person collaboration, and collaboration through the screen which is now so popular. That means private spaces where people can 'hide', not because they want to avoid people, but because they want to engage with people. Privacy no longer needs to be seen as antagonistic to transparency.