pair of boxing gloves on cement floor
PHOTO: Arisa Chattasa

While collaboration and productivity appear to go hand in hand in our workplaces, the reality suggests the two ideas can at times work against each other. How is it possible that the pursuit of collaboration, an essential component of a high performing organization, can also reduce productivity?

Related Article: Enterprise Personal Analytics: The Solution to Lagging Productivity?

One Person's Workplace Distraction Is Another's Collaboration Opportunity

A review of research and surveys on workplace distractions reveal common themes in the issues that impact our productivity. In our physical workspaces, many people complain about how open plan office spaces, which were supposedly designed to encourage collaboration, result in too much ambient noise and unplanned interruptions. 

Collaboration technology also compels us to engage in constant interaction through digital channels, making us basically ineffective due to the task-switching cost as we react to new messages.

However, opinions on distractions are divided. What is felt as distracting by some is seen as an opportunity for knowledge sharing and serendipity by others. Some people also consider the immediacy of real-time collaboration solutions a critical success factor for remote teams.

How Do You Define Productivity?

Perhaps the real problem lies in how we think about productivity. Discussions of productivity are often reduced to narrow terms, in terms of the amount of time it takes to complete tasks. A few years ago, Google shared the results of an internal study that explored the "overhead" of knowledge work, reporting that:

"The average worker spends only about 5 percent of his or her time actually coming up with the next big idea. The rest of our time is caught in the quicksand of formatting, tracking, analysis or other mundane tasks."

For Google, the point of this was to promote the role of machine learning to reduce the time wasted on non-value adding work. The assumption, of course, was that efficiency will generate higher value.

Another view is that the productivity of people should be based on the total value they generate, not the efficiency of each task. For example, applying the lens of knowledge management to the workplace can help us think about the productive value of collaboration in different ways, including:

  • Cost avoidance from better quality decision making and problem-solving.
  • Improved profitability because of innovation and continuous improvement.

We also know employee engagement is another important factor in productivity, and in turn, collaboration is a driver for enhancing engagement.

Related Article: Productivity Potholes: Bad Behavior Is Crushing Collaboration's Potential

How to Meet Collaboration and Productivity Needs? Thoughtful Design

If we accept collaboration is essential to overall performance, how do we make it more sustainable?

We can't ignore the evidence that poorly designed collaborative workplaces — both digital and physical — impact individual productivity. However, the solution is not to reject collaboration. Shutting off our phones and locking the door to our office will not  create an environment that generates value, even for those people who currently work as part of a predominantly task-orientated process.

Insurance company Zurich North America is an excellent example of how to create an equally collaborative and productive workplace. Built for almost 3,000 people to work together, its headquarters in Schaumburg, Ill. offers a mix of spaces for open collaboration, private workstations and social hubs. The company used feedback from employees and data to optimize the design. The company augmented the physical spaces with purpose-designed collaboration technology that made it easy to collaborate with remote coworkers.

Post-occupancy data for the Schaumburg office revealed improvement across multiple measures, including satisfaction and wellness. In particular, employees reported interaction within teams, between teams and with direct reports increased by almost 50%. Moreover, over 78% of employees said the new building improved their ability to work flexibility.

Related Article: Providing Employees Flexibility in Workplace Tools Doesn't Mean It's a Free-for-All

It All Comes Down to Choice

In modern organizations, the most significant risk to sustaining collaboration and maintaining productivity has nothing to do with the individual tools or spaces we provide. Instead, it is entirely contingent on delivering a palette of locations and technology for people to choose from, so they can maximize their personal and team productivity and value creation.