What’s the Best Way to Work?
The way we work is not one size fits all. The eight-hour workday, the 9-to-5 timeframe, the one-hour lunch, the 15-minute break — these are merely social constructs, not “natural” operational modes that work for every office, industry, and employee.
And while many offices have begun to look more custom than mass-produced, not all workplace trends improve your performance. From coworking spaces to collaboration, the “best” environment is hotly contested.
Here are four myths about how work gets done and what we should be doing instead.
Myth: Open Offices Are More Productive
Seventy percent of offices have open layouts, according to a 2010 survey by the International Facilities Management Association (and that number has only gone up since 2010). But studies show that privacy actually enhances job performance.
Yes, open offices have their upsides, like stronger employee relationships and better collaboration (more on that in a minute), but distractions abound. Many workers take to wearing headphones in an attempt to drown out the chaos. And the noise is more than mere annoyance: A study in the Ergonomics journal found that workers in open offices take more sick days than those in more segmented, traditional office designs.
Unfortunately, it’s not just the spread of germs that are ailing these open-office employees. Constant noise pollution is also linked to high blood pressure and chronic stress, not to mention a steep dive in productivity.
The solution: Hiding in our respective offices isn’t the answer. Rather than an all-or-nothing approach, offices need more private nooks and crannies and small conference rooms where employees can steal away to find peace of mind and focus on the task at hand, while also offering separate social spaces for communal gathering. A place and time for everything.
Myth: Collaboration Should Be Nonstop
The open office trend and current collaboration frenzy go hand in hand. Too much brainstorming actually diminishes creativity and fosters what psychologist Irving Janis named “groupthink.” To be clear, I’m not anti-teamwork — it’s important to come together to bond, exchange ideas, and check in. But making that the default way of doing everything is neither productive nor satisfying.
And for those of us who are introverts, operating in a perma-collaborative state is a real nightmare. But the general cultural trend of “togetherness” persists, diminishing the value of individual thought.
In a study of computer programmers, researchers found that personal space and separation from other workers was what distinguished the standout programmers, not salary or experience. Seventy-six percent of the best performers had a private work space, while 76 percent of the worst reported needless interruptions.
Privacy, not togetherness, boosts creative thinking. “Without great solitude, no serious work is possible,” said Picasso. Yet despite decades of research that suggests brainstorming is counterproductive — not to mention psychologist Adrian Furnham’s damning statement that “evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups” — the call for nonstop collaboration persists.
The solution: Design thinking, a human-centric approach to innovation that focuses on the outcome, not the number of possible ideas, is one alternative to brainstorming. Or, instead of endless meetings and all-day conversations, we can come together intermittently in a deliberate way to casually chat, break bread, and spark ideas.
Myth: Working From Home Is for Slackers
Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer created a stir when she issued a memo prohibiting her employees from working from home: “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.” But science is not entirely on her side.
A Stanford University study indicates that in many circumstances, employees are more productive, happier, and less likely to quit when allowed to work from home. Additionally, working from home saves employees commuting and “getting ready” time, while also allowing them to work at personally optimal hours — whether it’s a biological drive to work late in the evening or a need to work around kids’ schedules.
With fewer sick days and minimized distractions, working from home pushes a results-driven agenda where everybody wins, including employers: Companies like Cisco and Aetna have saved hundreds of millions of dollars on real estate with their telecommuting policies.
The solution: Despite the benefits of working from home, serendipitous encounters are great ways to build relationships, stumble upon unexpected overlaps, and use your physical presence to distinguish yourself. Thus, the key is not to avoid your coworkers at all costs, but rather to have the flexibility and freedom to come and go as needed without being shackled to your desk.
And speaking of being shackled: Perhaps, given our 24/7 digital accessibility, the more appropriate question is not whether we should come into the office, but rather whether we ever actually leave it.
Myth: A “Real” Job Is a Full-Time Job
The freelance sector of the workforce is growing rapidly. The economic downturn sparked this shift from full-time to independent workers, but it’s a trend that’s sticking. In fact, Intuit estimates that 40 percent of the U.S. workforce will be freelance by 2020, while some argue it could be closer to 50 percent. Regardless of the exact number, it’s extremely high and coming REALLY soon.
The downside of contract work is the lack of benefits, but the upside is flexibility. In this new work mode, entrepreneurship becomes an imperative mindset rather than a reference to those who start companies. The downturn of 2008 taught many people that “job security” is a myth, even at large, established institutions, and that diversifying your income sources — while also calling your own shots — is both safer and more satisfying.
The solution: The path to self-employment is not singular, nor is it exclusive to the young. Perhaps surprising to some, Boomers have the highest self-employment rate, while Millennials are actively avoiding working for the man.
So whether you sprout entrepreneurship wings now or after decades of corporate allegiance, it’s never too late. If you’re not quite ready to take the solo plunge, start a side gig while you’re still employed full-time to give yourself time to find your niche and develop a client base.
Anna Akbari, Ph.D. is a sociologist, entrepreneur, and the "thinking person's stylist." She is the founder of Sociology of Style, which takes an intelligent look at image and culture-related issues and offers holistic image consulting and life coaching services. Find out more and follow her on Twitter.