Is collaboration killing our thinking time?

People are spending less time thinking , creating and solving, and more time in meetings, on emails and reacting to day to day tasks. Have you designed thinking time into your workspace?


For example the only time I can find to stop and write a blog is a Sunday in a local café with email and phone off, my RescueTime app blocking internet, and where nobody can come and tap me on the shoulder. It is so hard to focus these days.

Yet this deep thinking time is critically important. Those breakthrough aha moments don’t occur when you’re constantly bouncing meeting to meeting. So is the boom of collaborative space killing our thinking time? Yes…and No.

Some staff burnout more rapidly than others

When staff are working in a highly collaborative space there are continual inputs from multiple sources. Whilst this is essential to create new connections and synthesise ideas, it can be mentally and physically draining.

A recent Harvard Business Review article outlines that some human resources can be duplicated easily and shared, such as information, but when physical presence and action with an individual is needed, their personal energy becomes drained very quickly. I often see spaces that enable frequent interruptions like “Could you take a quick look at this for me?”, and staff are exhausted.

Does it really matter in the age of innovation – shouldn’t we just collaborate all the time?

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.

Our decision making is impeded when we are in cognitive overload, we don’t assess all the evidence presented to us, we take the easiest and quickest decision. These quick decisions can lead to error. And then, we don’t have the time to reflect and learn from the choices we have made.

The days that consist of back-to-back meetings and continual decision-making blow out our brain’s decision-making budget. It’s impossible to consistently make the best choice possible. We are only human, we only have so much energy to spare.

Acoustics, open plan and co-working

We have evaluated various buildings and the acoustics in open plan spaces are often a main pain point for staff. Whilst they enjoy the space, it is difficult to block out chatter. This is why co-working spaces are an interesting trend. For example, working in this café now is similar to my co-working space. I am not invested in any conversations around me, it’s not like being in the office when a colleague mentions sustainable building and my ears perk up to see what they are saying. I can block out the actual conversation as white noise, and focus.

Having open plan spaces with people working on the same projects creates risk of not being able to block out those discussions. The boom 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. Why not co-work internally?

The value of floorspace and flexible hours

It is obviously more cost effective to have greater workplace density.  However, there is a risk of productivity losses and high attrition rates if space is not managed to minimise burnout. And those initial savings will be lost.

University colleagues in open plan comment that when they need to write or focus, they work from home. There are mixed opinions on this, but if offices continue to move to highly collaborative spaces requiring intense personal energy from staff, there is no alternative but to allow staff the flexibility to work off-site. It will pay off. GlobalWorkPlace Analytics study this area intently, and show the many benefits to allowing staff flexibility to work from home.

Your office might look aesthetically beautiful, but it needs to be functional and supportive for the people working in it every single day. The health and wellness of staff is directly impacted by this physical space, and that will impact your organisation’s bottom line. If you want to build innovation and collaboration, it is important to ensure there is adequate space and a supportive culture for deep thinking time, and to watch for potential staff burnout.

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Dr Sam Hall

Dr Sam Hall

Sam is the founder of Spaces Alive. She's an advocate for re-imaging our cities and buildings to prepare for the future of work and study.