The New Science of Collaborative Workspaces

Drawing by Steven Johnson

Rollabout desks and continuous cubicle walls are just a part of the new science of office ergonomics:

Being a part of group is awesome (go team!) but so is individual effort. The uncritical embrace of collaboration above all else can lead, as a social scientist at the SPUR panel remarked, to the reverse of what was intended: group-think, conformity, consensus for the sake of peace-making. Further, the suburban corporate campus, even when it attempts, as Facebook and Google are, to approximate urban environment, can often serve to exacerbate the type of self-reinforcing behaviors Bill Bishop explored a few years ago in his book, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart. Forest City's Alexa Arena, another participant in the SPUR panel, says that her company's anthropological research while working on the more iterative workspace model seen in its 5M Project revealed that employees working in these environments found that their best ideas came not while in that bustling, lively office but more likely when they were in their own neighborhoods hanging out with people not necessarily in their own line of work, or waiting for lunch at the Korean taco truck parked in front of the office.

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