The pros of working alone togetherAfter visiting family in my hometown, I came back a day before the Lunar New Year holiday weekend ended and spent the day at leisure. While I was reading, I came across an interesting piece by Susan Cain, whose article, “The Rise of the New Groupthink,” was published Jan. 13 in The New York Times. The message is simple: When people work alone in their own isolated space without the interruption of others, they are more creative and efficient than when they work as a group. She argued against the latest trend toward “groupthink” in corporate culture, where people work in open spaces without partitions.
Cain provides a few salient examples. In one such case, consultants Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister surveyed over 600 computer programmers at 92 companies and found that organizational culture had a more significant impact on performance than experience or compensation. Companies with the most personal workspace and freedom from interruption had the best performers, even if their employees were not paid well or had relatively little experience. In an open space, you cannot help but be conscious of the opinions of others. This kind of environment not only adds stress but also wastes energy on socializing that is unrelated to work. As a result, people in open work environments make 50 percent more mistakes and take twice as long to finish a job compared to those with more privacy.
Cain also objects to the idea of “brainstorming,” one of the most popular group discussion methods. In brainstorming sessions, “people in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic others’ opinions and lose sight of their own; and, they often succumb to peer pressure.” In this case, the fear of objection restricts creativity.
It was Steve Wozniak who invented the personal computer in 1975. But it was Steve Jobs who convinced him to market it and start Apple. In his memoir, Wozniak advised, “Work alone.?.?. Not on a committee. Not on a team.”
People are full of contradictions. We need the company of others but at the same time pursue privacy and freedom. Considering the conflicts in human nature, the best possible organizational culture would be to let people associate with one another but work alone. A business that values creativity and efficiency would do well to provide a personal workspace to maximize concentration and a common space for socializing and networking.
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.