Working Alone to Be More Productive?AUTHOR: Francisco Sáez
"Most inventors and engineers I've met are like me. They're shy and they live in their heads. The very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone..." ~ Steve Wozniak, Apple co-founder
Many companies design open work spaces so that all employees are in constant communication, since they believe that higher collaboration will allow them to be more productive. Group brainstorming dynamics are used again and again as a mechanism to get more and better ideas about any subject. In our society, and especially in the business world, while cooperative group work is very much appreciated, individual work is undervalued.
However, some studies suggest that most employees work better in an individual office, or even in a cubicle, that in an open space. There are also studies showing that group brainstorming doesn’t work.
Already in 1963 a study concluded that the ideas produced individually by a large group of scientists were more and of equal or greater quality than those produced by those same scientists on similar subjects when they were put together in groups of four to brainstorm ideas. The same experiment done with a group of publicists, people with a much more extroverted personality than scientists, turned out to have the same results. Other studies demonstrated afterwards that the results are even worse when the size of the group increases.
Psychologists argue that (1) in a group, there are always people who let others do the work, (2) while one person generates an idea, others often listen with a passive attitude and (3) all of us, to some extent, are afraid to look stupid in front of others. You can also add the groupthink effect, which takes place when the strong collective desire of working in harmony with the others is more important than obtaining good results.
Interestingly, only online or electronic brainstorming offers better results than individual ideas. People working together electronically although distant geographically, produce the best results (Linux or Wikipedia are magnificent examples of this type of results).
All this makes a lot of sense if you think that a good number of people (between 33% and 50% of the population) are rather introverted. Introverts may have amazing social skills, but they enjoy more their solitude. They like to listen more than to speak and usually express themselves better in writing than in a conversation. They generally dislike small talk, but enjoy deeper conversations.
In short, introverted people have a strong preference for quiet environments, where they can exploit their creativity with less stress. If you think about it, participating in an online working group is just another form of solitary work.
Adrian Furnham, a psychologist specializing in organizations, concludes that employees should work alone when creativity or efficiency is the top priority. In a world designed to reward the boldest people, the talent of more creative and quiet people is often wasted.