Commons Are Necessary, but Caves Are Too
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Apr 3, 2013

Commons Are Necessary, but Caves Are Too

By Jessica Love

“Every organization needs the right balance of caves and commons,” writes Leigh Thompson, the J. Jay Gerber Professor of Dispute Resolution and Organizations at the Kellogg School of Management, in a recent blog post.

When Marissa Mayer announced an end to telecommuting at Yahoo, she engendered a vibrant debate about the pros and cons of work-from-home arrangements.  Thompson argues that one of the practice’s biggest benefits—autonomy or “control over how you use time and space”—should be reproduced in the office when working from home is not an option. Specifically, Thompson recommends “common areas where team members can pull together for critical face-to-face time” but also “private spaces (caves) where one can work without being interrupted by colleagues walking by or cube chatter.”

In today’s collaboration economy, with its emphasis on connecting people and companies, the value of common spaces is apparent and often discussed. In-person communication can get a group on track when goals are amorphous, a crisis is at bay, or a spat threatens to get out of hand.

But caves also play an important role. In a new book informed by her years of research at the Kellogg School, Thompson describes a study conducted by consultants Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister. The consultants, after examining the performance of over 600 computer programmers competing in the Coding War Games, found that 62 percent of the best-performing programmers had a “private” workspace, while just 19 percent of the worst-performing programmers did.

Moreover, study after study has found that individuals working alone are actually more creative than the same number of individuals working together in a group. How could this be? Interruptions scatter our thoughts for, on average, seven minutes each. And, as we wait patiently for our colleagues to finish speaking, a significant number of good ideas may go unsaid. (If you must brainstorm as a group, Thompson says, let it be a small group!)

Many employees understand that they need private spaces to succeed—even if their bosses don’t get it. “If organizations don’t take proactive steps,” Thompson writes, “people manufacture their own caves whether by working from home, putting on earphones to tune out the drivel, or simply slipping out to the local WiFi café.” It’s certainly Yahoo’s prerogative to put an end to some of these options. But the company will need to encourage other ways for their workers to hole up, shut out distractions, and get creative.

See our Q&A with Leigh Thompson about her new book, Creative Conspiracy, here.

Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons