IN MODERN business, collaboration is next to godliness. Firms shove their staff into open-plan offices to encourage serendipitous encounters. Managers oblige their underlings to add new collaborative tools such as Slack and Chatter to existing ones such as e-mail and telephones. Management thinkers urge workers to be good corporate citizens and help each other out all the time.
The fashion for collaboration makes some sense. The point of organisations is that people can achieve things collectively that they cannot achieve individually. Talking to your colleagues can spark valuable insights. Mixing with people from different departments can be useful. But this hardly justifies forcing people to share large noisy spaces or bombarding them with electronic messages. Oddly, the cult of collaboration has reached its apogee in the very arena where the value of uninterrupted concentration is at its height: knowledge work. Open-plan offices have become near-ubiquitous in knowledge-intensive companies. Facebook has built what is said to be the world’s biggest such open space, of 430,000 square feet (40,000 square metres), for its workers.
Hitherto, knowledge workers have largely suffered in silence or grumbled in private because their chances of promotion have come to be influenced by their willingness to collaborate. But a backlash is setting in: the current Harvard Business Review (HBR) has a cover story on “collaborative overload”; and Cal Newport of Georgetown University has just brought out a book called “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World”.