[Previously posted on Pulse.]

“I stared into the abyss and saw my reflection. Prismatic, kaleidoscopic, yet unmistakably me.” – Leturos

I just read an article about quiet spaces being the latest “perk” in the workplace. A needed thing, given the busy work environments many find themselves in these days, but is it the best thing? I thought about my career as I paced outside for a few minutes, something I do several times a day when I need a break from the electronics.

I worked in an engineering bullpen when I first started out. It was surprisingly quiet, workers smoked at their desks, engineers talked with each other at their drawing boards and meetings were things we attended when we needed to present something to management. We developed consumer products rapidly and we did it well.

I had an office at my next workplace. Workers kept to their offices unless they had to venture out on the manufacturing floor or go to weekly team meetings. Meetings weren’t much fun and they were almost painful at times. We developed things much slower than we did at the first place and those skilled at politics were promoted to their Peter Principled place.

I worked in mixed environments for the next decade and a half. We collaborated in the labs, meetings often included pizza or snacks, and development was fun and fast thought it slowed to a crawl when the companies were readying themselves for a transition – a buyout, generally. I moved on to more exciting positions at other companies during two of these transitions.

Enter a decade of Collaboration, capital C intended. People became professional promotional machines. Talking about work became a key skill but doing it … that was for the people who weren’t progressing, the contractors, or the outside design and contract manufacturing services. Folks “managed” those resources and talked about why things weren’t moving along as fast as they’d like. Walls came down and productivity followed. Quiet rooms were booked for meetings, personal time, politically charged chats.

I’ve been studying a lot in the past year. At first, I tried to work on learning like I’d worked in the corporate world in the past decade. I mixed it all together, starting a lot of things then jumping from one to the next at scheduled intervals throughout the day. I scraped the surface of a lot of topics but I made little real progress. When I cut down the simultaneous learning fronts to three instead of seven or eight I started making real progress. At the same time, when I got out into the world a bit instead of trying to work my business from home, opportunities immediately started coming my way.

I’ve gotten fairly good at recognizing which contacts are not going to be worth my time and I politely decline the requests that are not robo-driven and ignore and/or block the rest. I deleted two LinkedIn contacts this morning already – getting a message from someone in Philadelphia/Jakarta on Friday that started “since we are both in the same city let’s have a Skype call sometime this week” was a bit much so soon after my morning cereal.

I’ve balanced things in the past few months. I’d swerved too far into the quiet space both when my studies were haphazard and when they were planned. However, I would not be able to process the amount of information I am currently processing without a quiet space. The workplace needs more balance and I don’t mean meditation room type balance. Meditate at home. I don’t mean that there shouldn’t be places to get away from it all for a bit. Over the years I found a great place for that: outside. Take a walk around the block or a turn around the company trail.

The balance I mean involves a move back from the open format environment to one where people have their own spaces that are free from distraction. A six-foot cubical wall is not required (they feel weird too) but some privacy in an open enough environment that hiding is neither commonplace or needs to become an artform would be an improvement over the chaos that workplaces seem to be intent on subjecting workers to in the name of space savings (so they can afford the rental fees in work-Disney/Stepford-worker environments).

The open format environments are supposed to encourage collaboration and, on many levels, they do. People talk about what needs to get done but how much really gets done? Processing 200 emails a day and attending six hours of meetings is not doing work. It’s being at work. A balance between open collaboration and active individual work is required. Rather than the worker communicators and worker drones that populate some places or the worker communicators communicating with the contracted drones we need to each do a bit of both, in balance.

CollaborAction involves working together closely, communicating openly, but it also includes a good deal of individual work that is completed accountably. Real accountability, responsibility, and respect for other’s abilities and work ethic will reduce or eliminate the need to copy everyone about everything. Slack features that let you prioritize your feed are great but reducing the volume of things that point in your general direction is key. Too often, people add others to communications for the wrong reason and when it becomes commonplace, the 200 email a day pattern becomes a badge of accomplishment and that’s more than silly, it’s simply insane.

Collaboration is key. CollaborAction is the door that opens to let innovation flourish and flow into and out of a work environment.

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