Does being physically near our colleagues encourage communication and collaboration, or have technology and cultural changes rendered the issue of proximity less relevant?
Thomas J. Allen, Professor of Organization Studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management, has been researching this topic for decades. In the late 1970s, Allen studied engineers employed at the same company to see how their communications habits changed based on their proximity to one another and their relationships within the organization. This research yielded a concept known as the Allen curve, which demonstrates the exponential dropoff in communication that comes with increased distance. Now, 40 years later, researchers continue turning out findings that prove the importance of physical proximity in the workplace.
In his initial study, which was recently updated and republished in The Organization and Architecture of Innovation, Allen looked at engineers across three departments: two in different wings of a building, and the third in a separate building. He found that not only did their face-to-face communication increase when they worked closer together physically, but so did their other forms of communication, including calls and emails. Allen also found that colleagues need not be separated by a great distance for their interactions to decline: “A mere 50 meters’ separation between people essentially results in the end of regular communication”.
Proximity also has the power to bring together coworkers from different departments who may not otherwise communicate much, if at all. Allen learned that the probability of regular communication between engineers in separate wings of the same building dropped by as much as 75 percent when they had no organizational relationship. Locating employees from different departments near one another can dramatically increase the likelihood that they will communicate on a regular basis—even if their intradepartmental communication drops off slightly at the same time. In the case of relocating certain engineers between floors in the same building, Allen found that “giving up about 15 percent of internal communication results in a more than twofold increase in interdepartmental communication”.
Today, a number of researchers are building on Allen’s work. Ben Waber, Jennifer Magnolfi, and Greg Lindsay collected and analyzed data and conversations with leaders across organizations and industries for their Harvard Business Review article “Workspaces that Move People.” They looked at the trend in open plan workspaces and how such spaces impact performance. Sociometric badge data showed them that a 10 percent increase in a salesperson’s interactions with colleagues on different teams correlated with a 10 percent increase in that person’s sales.
In 2014, Alex Pentland, Professor of Media Arts and Sciences and MediaLab Entrepreneurship Program Director at MIT, published the book Social Physics, which looks at the increasing number of “digital breadcrumbs” we all leave behind that speak volumes about communication patterns between and among groups of people. The increasing availability of such digital and trace data makes it even easier to study how employees communicate, and to understand how that communication relates to organizational structures and workplace design.
When we bring the lessons uncovered by researchers like Allen and Pentland into our workplaces and locate more workers within the 50-meter “communication zone,” we stand to greatly increase communication between employees and departments. More communication means more collaboration, more creative problem-solving, and more innovative ideas—benefits that reach far beyond the physical dimensions of the office.