Do we always work better in groups?

In an article recently published by the New York Times, author Susan Cain questions an idea she calls “the New Groupthink”, which can be described as the idea that people work better in groups. “Modern” offices, classrooms and other work spaces are now designed in a way that promotes group work–tables instead of desks, open offices rather than cubicles, etc. Office employees’ schedules are filled to the brim with collaborative meetings. From kindergarten to college, students are expected to work in small groups to complete assignments and projects.

Group work became most popular among businesses in the 1950s. Brainstorming was in fashion in the office, and it was thought that when people worked in groups, they came up with far more ideas than an individual did. When in actuality, research has shown that individual work provides better results in both quantity and quality. Now in 2012, group work has stretched beyond the office to places like educational and religious institutions, under the same idea that this method will produce better results.

Cain wonders, what happened to individual work? After all, students and employees perform better when they have a space to themselves. This is especially true for introverts, who feel more comfortable working alone than in groups.

Cain uses Apple and its co-founder Steve Wozniak as an example. Wozniak worked hard engineering the first Apple computer, making “something from nothing” in the early days of the computer. He did the creation alone, working privately day and night. However, if it weren’t for Steve Jobs and a certain computer engineering club coming along, Apple may not exist. Homebrew Computer Club was a group of engineers that got Wozniak interested in building the personal computer. Steve Jobs convinced Wozniak not to give his invention away for free, and instead start Apple Computer with him. Collaboration worked better in some areas, and individual work worked better in others.

The main point in this article is that workers (whether students or employees) need to have a good balance of group time and individual time. If pushed to one side or another, the quality of the work may suffer. Cain suggests employers and instructors use collaboration wisely and to use it to “exchange ideas, manage information and build trust”.