The Epic Move From Presentation to Collaboration: Why Should You Care?

Our first series of articles/posts is focused around the trend from presentation to collaborative spaces.  This shift is central to the way that we communicate, learn, socialize, and do business today.  The impact of the internet and the availability of information created a whirlwind shift in the way we consume information over the past decade.

Understanding how to best leverage these changes will be critical for anyone in architecture, education, business, and a host of other professions over the coming years.    

When examining the presentation-collaboration shift, the examples that most quickly come to mind are education and corporate spaces, but we’ll see that these concepts apply almost anywhere.  In terms of education, there is plenty of evidence for the increased effectiveness of the instructor as learning facilitator rather than presenter modality.   We’ll discuss these in upcoming articles.  In terms of corporate spaces, this discussion usually focuses on spaces for knowledge workers.  In this area, there is far less agreement.

Particularly around 2012 and 2013, there was a swing in the voices crying out for more concentration centered spaces, including articles in a number of highly visible publications (The New Yorker, New York Times, The Atlantic, etc), not to mention Susan Caine’s “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking“.  This movement somewhat culminated in an affirmation of these suspicions with the publication of Gensler’s 2013 WPI (Work Performance Index)

On the workspace front, the simple argument is that this was just a correction for a pendulum that had swung too far toward collaboration.  It’s always attractive to be able to sum up entire cause and effect scenarios in a neat little nutshell.  In this case, I believe the real implications are far more subtle

One of the primary reasons for this confusion is that it’s just so easy to simplify.  It lends itself to interesting short articles about a hot topic.  It’s alluring to read an article like “Focus vs Collaboration, Which is More Important” in 1,000 words.  It suggests that we can simplify this question into a “yes or no”, “right or wrong” answer.

As a starting point, it probably helps to think of different types of tasks that must be accomplished around an office.  Gensler thoughtfully refers to these as Work Modes and identifies Four:

  • Focus
  • Collaboration
  • Learning
  • Socialization  

We have to be careful here.  When most others have used the word collaboration in this context, it’s a reference to a particular type of activity.  When I use the word collaboration to describe the shift from presentation to collaboration, it is describing how an activity is actually carried out.  Let me see if I can explain this a bit more clearly

One of the Work Modes is learning, but we have already identified that learning itself is largely shifting from a “presentation” to a “collaboration” approach (at least in the higher education setting).  Similarly, what could possibly be more collaborative than socialization.  This seems to be common sense, but it’s not.  In fact, this reflects a larger overall societal trend in the reduction of hierarchical structures since the industrial revolution.  This is a sociological trend that I describe in more detail in an upcoming article in Sound and Communications magazine, so I won’t dive into it here.

In fact, out of the 4 Modes, the only one that doesn’t entail the brand of collaboration that I’m describing here is focus.  In all fairness, focus is still extremely important, if not downright vital to these types of spaces.  As noted in the Gensler study, focus is uniquely critical to the effectiveness of the three other modes.  In other words, harm focus and you also harm collaboration.  This makes sense, as they point out, because the inability to focus is frustrating to employees.  Obviously a frustrated employee is less likely to engage in socialization, collaboration, and learning to the same degree

On top of all this, the study presented four reasons why focus is increasingly important in today’s workplace.  These included

  • Increasing distractions like Facebook, Twitter, etc (although to my mind the distractions that are increasing are digital in nature and not eliminated by focus spaces – I don’t believe you are less likely to be distracted by Twitter with the door closed)
  • Less space.  This is an obvious trend and one of the biggest drivers of the revolution.  This issue will come up again and again.
  • Less privacy.  This impact of this point has shifted and will continue to shift over time.  It’s been clearly documented that Millennials have several other concerns that rank above privacy.  We’ll discuss these also.
  • Longer days.  Consideration for this factor should vary based on your anticipated building cycle, in my humble opinion.  There is a competing tendency towards workplace mobility and accessibility.  In a 2014 Cisco study more than half of Gen X/Y respondents considered themselves accessible 24/7.  It will be interesting to see how and if these trends evolve with the eventual recovery of the economy.

Why do I keep referring to this Gensler Study?  For the architects reading this, who engage in these types of spaces, it’s obvious.  For the others out there, the WPI is an exhaustive study that includes 90,000 people from 155 companies in 10 industries.  The results were first issued in 2008.  The 2013 survey included 2,035 knowledge workers.  Few companies are even poised to conduct such extensive research.

The 2013 Gensler WPI findings suggest a 6% drop in workplace performance.  The study suggests that the drop is largely due to focus spaces being sacrificed for collaboration spaces.

Choosing the right mix of spaces is probably the domain of quantitative research (although this is tough, since it may vary from industry to industry).  What I am suggesting here is more about refining the effectiveness of each of the modes.  For instance, a recent Entrepreneur magazine article cites research suggesting that the ability to focus is more closely related to “metacognition” (the brains ability to shift between states of focus) than to the total absence of distractions.

Anecdotally, when I look at workplaces and speak to others about them, one of the key components missing today for focus would appear to be proper attention being paid to acoustics.  I’m curious to hear input from others on this topic, particularly acousticians.

The Gensler WPI is central to the popular debate of focus vs collaboration.  We’re embarking on a series of articles highlighting the move from presentation to collaboration.  I think it’s important to highlight that this is a different trend to avoid confusion.  Interestingly, I think presentation vs collaboration is an extension of the focus vs collaboration discussion.  It’s just moving beyond the simplified yes or no into the nuance of the conversation.  This nuance involves understanding the four modes and working to make each of them more effective, rather than endless conversation about which is more important.

I’m interested to hear your comments and thoughts.  If you want to follow along with the conversation, you can also sign up for our blog to be notified when we publish the next article in this series.


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