The open plan office has attracted much research (and criticism) over the years, and focus is now shifting toward collaborative spaces such as activity-based working due to perceived innovation and productivity lifts for companies.

However, if collaborative space is not executed well, it is merely a guise for open plan, and too much collaboration can actually be a detriment to productivity. Here are some things to think about when contemplating collaborative work spaces:

Collaboration can result in burnout

When staff are working in a collaborative space, there are continual inputs from multiple sources. Whilst this is essential to create new connections and synthesise ideas, it is mentally and physically draining. Those continual interruptions result in productivity declines, not increases.

Some recent research on ‘collaborative overload’ found that staff spend 80 per cent of their time in meetings, on the phone or responding to emails. With little time left for critical work in the office, work gets taken home and holidays and weekend down-time become less frequent.

Our workplaces aren’t necessarily becoming more productive from these spaces, but at threat of creating overworked and burnt out staff. We often think of the physical workplace and culture as quite separate, but a well designed space that limits over-stimulation and interruption can mitigate this burnout.

Create spaces for thinking slow

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman outlines the increased reliance on quick decision making as we get busier, and how we are skipping the deep contemplative thinking that takes more effort and time. That’s the secret to true innovation, and we are scheduling it out of our days and building it out of our workplaces when designing for continual collaboration.

The quality of our decision-making ability is impeded when we are in cognitive overload, we make more errors, and we have limited time for reflection and learning – let alone time for innovation and improvement. In highly collaborative cultures, it is important for staff to have truly quiet spaces to reflect, think, and work undisturbed.

Susan Cain expands in Quiet how ‘collaboration’ has become a misleading buzzword for success. We have a growing obsession to solve problems in groups (reflected in our workplace design) and this is destroying innovation. We lose individual input in ‘groupthink’ situations. She emphasises how the construct of modern collaborative and highly stimulating workplaces suit highly extroverted alpha personalities, whereas half the workforce is introverted.

Introverts are wrongly perceived as shy or weak as they aren’t necessarily outspoken. The value of introverts is that they are often creative and insightful problem-solvers and are critical for innovation. Importantly, they thrive from less stimulating environments and more deep thinking time. In environments with continual collaboration and stimulation, their value diminishes.

There are some tips here to coping in open plan offices for introverts (and hidden introverts).

Privacy and autonomy

Staff value some level of privacy and control over their environment. Privacy is lacking in collaborative workspaces. When I complete workplace evaluations, I often see complaints from staff such as limited private areas for phone calls, computers screens visible to colleagues, or lack of space for confidential discussions. These complaints are signs of the craving that people have for privacy.

When offices are replaced with open plan or flexible desks, the privacy and control diminishes. Some recent research from University of Sydney found that this sense of loss (and the resulting productivity impacts) can be made up through ensuring other areas are satisfactory: storage, high quality social spaces, choice of seating, break-out areas and furniture.

Co-working: choose your space

When I need some slow thinking time, I enjoy working in co-working spaces, libraries or cafes. The chatter around me becomes background noise and doesn’t penetrate my concentration (as it isn’t directly related to my work), and so long as people don’t interrupt me, I can preserve my flow.

The popularity of co-working spaces is partly due to the control over the environment that they provide. I can choose where I want to sit depending on what I need – I choose the level of stimulation, the temperature and the environment.

The growth of co-working spaces is not just for start-ups; there are options for companies to explore building these spaces into their portfolios and mixing up their teams.

The true value of floor space

Offices may look aesthetically beautiful, but they need to be functional and supportive for the people working in them every single day. Whilst in the short run it could be more cost effective to have greater workplace density through removing offices and creating open spaces, in the long run, if not executed well, it will impact your organisation’s bottom line through absenteeism and loss of, or difficulty attracting, talent.

It is time to move away from the bland cubicles and closed off private offices toward healthy and vibrant workplaces. Offices can do this, and create a diversity of spaces that enable deep contemplative thinking, without the collaboration overload.