Too many groups, not enough focus

Group work has become all the rage.
Group work has become all the rage.

About two-thirds of the assessment for a university subject I teach is based on group work and student class participation. The rest is for an individual project, but even half of those marks are based on how the student presents their idea to others.

At a nearby school, young students sit in groups of desks and do more work collaboratively. I’m told their classrooms are sometimes combined (with a few teachers) as students work in larger groups. Perhaps it helps them learn to solve problems in group settings.

In corporate land, more companies are adopting this dreadful practice of “hot-desking”, where staff do not have a permanent desk and instead share workspaces with colleagues. Apparently, it aids productivity, encourages group work and, of course, cuts office space and costs.

These are dangerous times for people who work best quietly and on their own.

I’ve thought a lot about this trend after reading Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. Those interested in her core ideas can watch this TED video.

I don’t see this issue as introverts versus extroverts, or quiet people versus loud people. For mine, the real problem is a growing obsession with group work and the belief that people cannot be creative or innovative unless they work together and spark ideas off each other.

Don’t get me wrong: some group work is vital. I completely get why universities require plenty of group work in entrepreneurship subjects (cynics might say it’s about marking fewer papers!). And I understand the benefits of encouraging school students to solve problems in group settings.

I also get why large companies spend so much time designing work spaces that encourage collaboration between staff, reduce office “silos”, and create conditions that foster “accidental innovation”, where staff from different departments develop new product configurations.

Certainly, academic literature on creativity and innovation espouses the benefits of worker collaboration and bringing different groups of workers together to develop ideas. Online platforms and new technologies have also taken group work and being connected to new levels.

But have we become so brainwashed about the benefits of group work that we have forgotten the virtues of people having enough time to work on their own without distraction?

What’s your view?

  • Is there too much group work these days?
  • Do you have time to work on your own, quietly and without distraction?
  • Are you more productive and happy having more individual work time?

Group work often has problems. Too much of it in a university setting can drag up slack students who manage to get into good groups. Just as too much group work in companies can help underperformers survive and even flourish if they excel at group politics and performances.

You would think group work would quickly weed out underperformers. Yet I’ve seen plenty of corporate “blowflies” over the years who buzz from one group to another, make loud noises, then after 18 months go to the next job and leave a mess for their colleagues to clean up.

These blowflies are often terrified at having to produce their own work, so they fill their days with endless, pointless meetings to appear busy and impress other group members.

Group work’s other problem is that some people naturally suck at it. They are far more productive, creative and happier working for longer periods on their own. They need quiet time to concentrate, reflect, think, and avoid distraction. They like to produce ideas on their own and take them to a group setting for further refinement and debate.

Yet so many companies seem to do the reverse these days: everything starts with the group meeting where staff collaboratively examine issues, and then do some work on those ideas individually. That, too, can be effective. But it can also lead to group-think and discourage those who work better on their own. And the loudest people often seem to lead groups because we equate noise and presence with leadership, when quiet people might be more thoughtful and willing to hear from others.

There is no right or wrong answer to this debate. The starting place is understanding your staff and knowing which work conditions optimise their performance and benefit the firm. For some, that could mean more group work. For others, it is more individual work time.

The solution could be as simple as letting staff work a day from home each week so they have more time to work individually, or having meeting-free periods during the week (if that's possible).

Perhaps it’s about giving staff more opportunity to develop ideas, before discussing them in group settings. Or managing group work more effectively so that all can maximise their contribution.

The point is: assuming group work is best for all employees is silly. So too is letting staff work too much on their own and making it easy for those who dislike group work to avoid it altogether.

It’s all about balance, and right now that balance seems to being shifting too far away from the benefits of individual work and towards group work.

This story Too many groups, not enough focus first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.