I’ve written a lot about workplace collaboration and showed many offices that put collaboration at the forefront of their goals. While I don’t think designing for collaboration is inherently a bad thing, it seems that it isn’t always wonderful.

According to an interesting whitepaper by Gensler, the most significant factor in workplace effectiveness is not collaboration, but rather individual focus work. It also happens to be that focus is measured as the least supported workplace activity.

If you work in a so-called “collaborative office”, you’ll undoubtedly agree with these findings. One reason is probably because in the ravenous desire to keep up with the trends of open, collaborative office spaces – employers and office planners decided to simply foist the design onto many employees rather than finding out what actually made sense for employee effectiveness and morale. Another reason is that placing employees into an open arrangement does not always equal a collaborative environment.

“Workplace strategies that sacrifice individual focus in pursuit of collaboration will result in decreased effectiveness for both.

It’s not difficult to guess why this is the case. When people’s most important reported work activity is the one least supported by the workplace, the result is frustration, with a domino effect on the other work modes. A frustrated person is highly unlikely to spin his chair around and happily collaborate or socialize; a frustrated mind is unlikely to learn; a frustrated employee is unlikely to be engaged or productive.

These findings are not a repudiation of collaboration, but rather an embrace of focus. When it can be achieved, good things happen.”

Balancing The Work Modes

Workplace design is based on the idea that there are essentially four modes of activity that take place in an office. The goal of an office designer should be to create a workplace that allows employees to freely interchange between these modes throughout the workday.

Desks are not good places for group learning. Open office spaces are not good for socializing. Lunch rooms are not good for focus.

An office that balances these modes well will be a workplace where employees can be maximally effective in their workdays.

Screen shot 2012 12 27 at 1.52.32 PM Key to Effective Workplaces is Focus, NOT Collaboration

Top Companies Value Focus and Plan For It

We’ve previously discussed how Top Companies Design Their Offices Better Than You, and guess what – atop the list of things these top companies design for?

Focus.

Gensler adds:

Concentration requires a more individualized set of options than today’s standard playbook. To enhance both collaboration and concentration, we are seeking to invent a workplace that provides a spectrum of individual choices of primary workspaces, supported by places to collaborate, socialize and learn. This new hybrid could unlock untapped value through a more equitable balance of concentration and collaboration in the workplace: a new approach that could create a fresh level of success for organizations.

Redefining focus as an important, valuable and desirable activity in the workplace is a shift for businesses that have rightfully seized on the power of collaboration as a force for productivity and innovative ideas. But it doesn’t have to be a U-turn. Rather, it redirects us to explore more fully what we first uncovered: There are four distinct work modes. They all matter and they are all inextricably connected.”

View the full Gensler Whitepaper.