Groupthink: Not an argument against coworking

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