“Solitude is out of fashion,” writes Susan Cain in the New York Times. “Our companies, our schools, and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in.”
Never mind, for a moment, that Cain is declaring “lone geniuses are out” in era that has made celluloid heroes out of computer programmers. Her point — elaborated on in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking — is that American workplaces, as settings, have become all too collaborative.
“Virtually all American workers now spend time on teams, and some 70 percent inhabit open-plan offices, in which no one has ‘a room of one’s own,’ ” she continues in the Times. “During the last decades, the average amount of space allotted to each employee shrank 300 square feet, from 500 square feet in the 1970s to 200 square feet in 2010.”
Why does this matter? Because privacy leads to productivity, Cain argues. She cites a study in which consultants analyzed the work of more than 600 computer programmers at 92 companies. “Sixty-two percent of the best performers said their workspace was sufficiently private compared with only 19 percent of the worst performers. Seventy-six percent of the worst programmers but only 38 percent of the best said that they were often interrupted needlessly.”
The study Cain refers to is known as the Coding War Games, for which consultants Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister analyzed the work of more than 600 programmers at 92 companies. If that type of research is of interest to you, be sure to check out DeMarco and Lister’s book on the topic, Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams.
Cain’s data on the shrinking size of American workspaces aren’t without controversy. Business writer Scott Berkun posted a fascinating rebuttal on his blog titled “The Problem with The New Groupthink.” He writes: “She doesn’t cite her sources for office size, and the trend may be for the worse, but the basic notion [that] we share space with other people is quite stable and old.”
Build reached out to Cain, seeking the original sources for her office space statistics. She referred us to several citations in her book’s endnotes, including one stating that “the first company to use an open plan in a high-rise building was Owens Corning in 1969.”