quiet, please

Much of the innovation that’s happened within the workplace, even if it’s in the form of innovative ways to joke around, has been geared toward making work lives more collaborative. The once fashionable open office floor plan was adopted across the land to enable better communication and ideas, not as a cost-cutting measure, swore managers.

But it turns out, all this extra collaboration might be doing more harm than good, to a new paper published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Called “How intermittent breaks in interaction improve collective intelligence,” the paper explains how over a series of experiments on small teams faced with complex problems, researchers found that intermittent collaboration was actually optimal relative to the “always-on” collaboration that’s increasingly common. The research was conducted by the Harvard Business School, Questrom School of Business at Boston University, and Northeastern University.

“As we replace those sorts of intermittent cycles with always-on technologies, we might be diminishing our capacity to solve problems well,” said Ethan Bernstein, a professor at Harvard Business School who worked on the study, in a statement released with the study.

open offices
Always on technology might make us predisposed to collaborating too much. 

What’s the Best Way to Work?

Some of the researchers’ hypotheses played out. Teams that worked independently were basically unreliably brilliant; they came up with the most creative solutions but with greater variance. Teams that collaborated constantly, by contrast, were less likely to produce the most interesting ideas, but performed better than the loners overall because they were more consistent.

But what surprised the researchers was that teams that collaborated occasionally got the “best of both worlds” in that they were able to produce more creative ideas with lower variance.

The explanation is even more interesting. Essentially, when you interact with people constantly, the high performers effectively put the team on their back, mostly ignoring the low performers who simply piggyback on their ideas. But when they’re only able to interact intermittently, higher performers learn from the low performers.

Less Slack, More Hack(athon)

What this means is that the best way to work might look less like a Slack room and more like a hackathon that’s made up of long stretches of independent work with scheduled windows to share ideas. Researchers also suggested that workplaces should organize collaboration into “sprints” where workers focus intensely on a single problem for shorter amounts of time.

And as for workers? At the very least, the findings suggest that workers should feel more empowered to keep their head down on a project instead of living in the #random channel.