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Groupthink: Not an argument against coworking

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Solitude is out of fashion,” declared Susan Cain, the author of the forthcoming book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, in last week’s New York Times Sunday Review. “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,” she continues, arguing that this fetishization of collaboration and the resultant space design and work style it produces is often bad for introverts and bad for innovation.

So how does the fact that “no one has ‘a room of one’s own’” these days affect the coworking movement, which is predicated on the notion that getting together in social spaces improves work? Are coworking spaces the enemy of the “more nuanced approach to creativity,” Cain advocates for, an approach that encourages “casual, cafe-style interactions” but allows people “to disappear into personalized, private spaces when they want to be alone”? Or can spaces accommodate both needs? We asked a number of coworking space owners for their thoughts.

Don Ball, the co-founder of CoCo coworking in St. Paul, Minn., was unruffled by Cain’s piece, seeing it as directed more toward “ham-fisted” corporate collaboration efforts than the environment at coworking spaces like his. Like several members of the coworking movement who emailed in, Ball felt coworking was actually well positioned to allow the balance of solitude and sociability Cain is championing:

Some of the writer’s assertions actually jibe with our experience at CoCo. Our most popular membership option is what we call a part-time membership, in which members work in our space one day per week to get their social group time. And then stay at home (or who knows where else) to get their heads-down time. So, it’s a sanity insurance policy, if you will.

David Moffitt, the founder of Coworking Rochester in Rochester, N.Y., was equally unruffled, agreeing that coworking allows an ideal situation for workers to regulate their own need for human contact (or lack thereof):

From observing our members in the context of coworking, the thing that strikes me is that people here are able to self-regulate their level of intro/extrovert or community involvement.  Some members will pull others into discussion and spend half an hour on tangents ranging from database architecture to preferred coffee or beer brewing methods, while others are perfectly content to make their desks their own bubble or personal island.

But he does stress that it is incumbent on coworking spaces to help members get away by providing private spaces. Cain may feel that the current fad for open-plan offices and collaboration may be bad news for introverts, but Liz Elam of Link Coworking in Austin, Texas, feels that while quiet-craving personalities may be common, those that desire to work in complete isolation aren’t.

Steve King and I discussed yesterday ‘Hermitpreneurs’ — people who like working from home because it allows them to avoid other people. We guesstimate this is less than 5 percent of the population,” she says. “Most people are not Hermitpreneurs.” Like Ball and Moffitt, Elam thinks coworking provides a good balance for the remaining 95 percent of the population. “Many of my Link Members are introverts but they work from a Coworking space because it allows them to be amongst people and they can interact when they want/need to,” she says.

Like Ball, Moffitt underlines the point that while corporate mania for collaboration obligates introverts to attend more meetings and listen to more office chatter than they would naturally want to, coworking allows complete control over your level of interaction.

At least as long as you have a good pair of headphones. “I think noise cancelling headsets are wonderful,” says Elam. “Why do you need walls to isolate? You can choose to isolate in the workplace.”

Do you think coworking is a symptom of our mania for collaboration or a solution to it?

Image courtesy of Flickr user clagnut

9 Responses to “Groupthink: Not an argument against coworking”

  1. Kira Woodmansee

    Having managed a coworking space for a year now (one Alyson referenced at Boulder Digital Arts), I can definitely say that it’s all about being able to choose your level of interaction. Coworking is different from the open-office plan because the relationships between the workers don’t come pre-defined. Your colleague at the next desk isn’t working on the same project you are – unless you choose to collaborate – and as a result, our space is fairly quiet even when it’s full. Most people who check out our space are looking for a level of interaction they can control, and coworking provides the opportunity for socialization without making it obligatory.

  2. Alyson B. Miller

    Give the success of the co-working space at Boulder Digital Arts, I’d have to say the entrepreneurs who feel isolated but need a mix of quiet and collaboration have found their ideal solution. Truth is total isolation is NEVER good for innovation – leaves a person out of the flow of resources & opportunities for implementation.

  3. Most creative people I’ve asked say they consider themselves both introverted and extroverted. Starbucks deserves some credit for launching the co-working movement by acting as a beacon for home-officed people uncomfortable with unmitigated solitude. Jeff’s point is well taken, that co-working facilities are qualitatively different from coffee shops in in that they offer interaction as well as proximity.

  4. davidmoffitt

    @Jeff pretty much nails it, I’m an extrovert and for me, founding Coworking Rochester meant bringing in people to bounce ideas off of, share lunch with, go out for beers later – but I also see that a good number of our members are happy to withdraw into a world of headphones, the laptop screen, etc. Nothing wrong with either, but I think what Cain missed (and why I agree so much with this article) is that Coworking allows for both, it’s by no means a one-size fits all model (excited to see pictures of yours too btw, hit us up on twitter – @coworkingroc / @davidmoffitt).

  5. Look at any crowded coffee shop and you will see most people working on their computers there are isolated. Headphones, no eye contact, no talking with others. In an environment with such great energy for ideas, nobody works together. Co-working allows both extroverts and introverts to leverage the thinking and skills of others if and when they want to. It’s an infrastructure that gives back exponentially when the community contributes to it.

    Jeff Donaldson
    Owner Scrib Co-Working Boulder, CO