The Balance of “We” and “Me”: Collaboration and Solitude in the Workplace

“Teamwork makes the dream work.”

This popular phrase, though somewhat tongue-in-cheek, accurately underscores the importance of collaboration to the human experience. After all, where would we be today if our earliest cavemen ancestors hadn’t teamed up to take down saber-toothed tigers and woolly mammoths?

The outcomes of working together are different today than they were 40,000 years ago, but collaboration remains critical as we advance as a society. Major innovations and historical events were made possible through the power of teamwork, like the discovery of DNA’s structure and the Apollo 13 mission. And the value of collaboration and interpersonal relationships has only increased in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, which shuttered workplaces around the world and forced workers to operate from home in isolation.

It’s not surprising, then, that architects have designed many of today’s workplaces to encourage sustained interactions and collaboration between individuals and teams alike; things like open floorplans, hot desking and advanced teleworking technologies have become ubiquitous in the hopes of inspiring more serendipitous learning and communal work. But experts suggest that these concepts might not produce the desired interactions between workers and may actually hinder their productivity.

In reality, a workplace that spurs collaboration isn’t all about open spaces, glass walls and shared desks. In fact, collaboration overload is a thing, and it can be incredibly draining. To create a truly collaborative workplace, we can’t discount the importance of solitude—the much-needed time alone to process ideas with uninterrupted concentration.

Is it possible to design a workplace with the perfect balance of “we” and “me”? Absolutely. Here are some elements to consider to ensure your employees have ample time to collaborate and concentrate.

1. Prioritize privacy.

Common office distractions (like coworkers walking by or loud conference calls) can make it difficult to focus on work. Even if you’re working with an open floorplan, incorporating distraction-free spaces like huddle spaces with solid walls and doors or “phone-booth” style nooks with soundproofing materials can give employees the heads-down privacy they crave.

2. Empower collaboration through “collision zones.”

An open office alone doesn’t ensure effective collaboration and teamwork. Consider designing a few dedicated “collision zones,” which create the opportunity for chance encounters between employees that lead to meaningful collaboration. Data suggests that “creating collisions—chance encounters and unplanned interactions between knowledge workers, both inside and outside the organization—improves performance.”

3. Develop organizational protocols for privacy or focus time.

An open office can sometimes feel like the Wild West—so laying down guidelines for acceptable behavior and privacy requirements can go a long way in providing workers with much-needed solitude. Consider carving out a window of time for quiet work in a certain location of the office or designating listening to music and videos as “headphones only” activities.

4. Base design decisions on data.

If you really want to foster a culture of collaboration, “you need to increase the right kinds of interactions and decrease ineffective ones …. which means you need to understand current patterns of interaction and consider how you want to change them.” In other words, employers should collect and analyze data on employee interactions and movement, happiness, and productivity to experiment with office configurations and design choices. Employee surveys, interviews and movement-tracking sensors can provide critical insight into what’s working and what isn’t.

The modern office environment must strike a fine balance between several different elements: Practical yet comfortable. Accessible yet technologically capable. And, perhaps most importantly, suitable for both collaborative work and solo focus time. With the right design, employers can empower their workers to find the ideal rhythm of collaboration and private work that makes them the happiest and most productive.