The researchers formed and studied a number of three-person groups working on a complex problem-solving task (not described by the author) [emphasis mine].
The members of one set of groups never interacted with each other, solving the problem in complete isolation; members of another set constantly interacted, as we do when equipped with always-on technologies; and members of the third set of groups interacted only intermittently.
From prior research, the researchers anticipated that the groups whose members never interacted would be the most creative, coming up with the largest number of unique solutions — including some of the best and some of the worst — and a high level of variation that sprang from their working alone. In short, they expected the isolated individuals to produce a few fantastic solutions but, as a group, a low average quality of solution due to the variation. That proved to be the case.
The researchers also anticipated that the groups whose members constantly interacted would produce a higher average quality of solution, but fail to find the very best solutions as often. In other words, they expected the constantly interacting groups’ solutions to be less variable but at the cost of being more mediocre. That proved to be the case as well.
But here’s where the researchers found something completely new: Groups whose members interacted only intermittently preserved the best of both worlds, rather than succumbing to the worst. These groups had an average quality of solution that was nearly identical to those groups that interacted constantly, yet they preserved enough variation to find some of the best solutions, too.
This runs counter to the modern assumption that 'always on’ is the best modality in group performance. This is the principle that underlies our obsession with tools like work chat, and the application of ideas like 'working out loud’.
And the effect of intermittent interaction changed the way both the lower and higher performers learned. In 'always on’ mode, low performers simply copy from higher performers, and higher performer simply ignored lower performers. But in an intermittent set-up, the lower performers ideas actually helped the higher performers do even better.
The takeaway? Our mode of 'always on’ communication and team interaction diminishes our capacity to solve complex problems well.
Re: Open offices
I think the conversation about the workplace needs to be more nuanced. There is so much clutter in the open/closed debate. For example, the Bernstein study that he references has been widely criticized for being a very narrow study (2 companies, short time span, no description of the new office space other than “open,” etc.) yet widely echoed in the design/workplace press as finally justifying the “death of the open office.”
Jot’s use of private shared space for each team is the barest satisfaction in a (perhaps still faulted) concept known as the Activity Based Workplace, which provides a portfolio of spaces where people can go to do specific types of work.
One example is our design for Meritor, which looks like this: