Forget what you know about how to maximize productivity.
According to a new report published in Harvard Business Review, the key to unlock the greatest productivity isn’t necessarily in the hands of the individual employee. Rather, authors Ben Waber, Jennifer Magnolfi, and Greg Lindsay posit that chance and face-to-face encounters are the way anyone working in the knowledge economy is going to improve performance. That’s in spite of technology that keeps us "connected," even when we work remotely.
Independent studies conducted by Waber, president and CEO of Sociometric Solutions, found physical closeness even boosts virtual communication. In one, engineers who shared space were 20% more likely to communicate digitally and emailed four times more frequently when collaborating on a project. The result: their projects were finished 32% faster than those from staff working in different places.
This isn’t a new concept, the authors say. The negative effect of distance on communication was discussed back in 1977 in Thomas Allen’s book, Managing the Flow of Technology. It continues to be the foundation of corporate policies like Marissa Mayer’s when she mandated Yahoo! employees could no longer work from home.
Yet while office space, the authors write, may have evolved from corner offices to cubicles, to open concept to capitalize on collaborative conversations, companies haven’t been able to back office design with proof that they’re pushing productivity. Until now.
Lindsay, who’s working on a book called Engineering Serendipity, tells Fast Company that his coauthors conducted numerous experiments with wearables over the past two years. Using iPod-sized badges with infrared, bluetooth, and recording capabilities, employees at different companies were tracked as they went through their work day.
Employees had to opt-in to wearing the device (with a 90% acceptance rate) Lindsay explains, and were monitored an average of six to eight weeks for location, movement, posture and conversation. "It recorded who you were speaking to, not the specifics of the conversation," Lindsay says, "then all the data was randomized enough so identities were shielded."
The results were eye-opening. Not only did the research confirm that the sensors were a more effective way of gauging productivity than the old cost-per-square foot metric which only measures efficiency rather than whether the design of an office helps or hinders performance. But that analyzing this data could impact the way offices could be designed to increase chance encounters that lead to greater innovation—even when workers are using digital means to communicate.
At Samsung headquarters for example, outdoor spaces between floors are strategically placed to get sales people and engineers mingling. Scott Birnbaum, a vice president of Samsung Semiconductor told HBR, the new building "is really designed to spark not just collaboration but that innovation you see when people collide." And it’s why, Lindsay points out, that Google has a bee keeping group.
"Google came up with new product lines like Gmail and Street View from engineers having informal conversations," he explains. Even algorithms can’t spit out all the possible combinations of staff and niche interests, so Google encourages special interest clubs to spur those conversations.
Do water cooler rants or coffee machine klatches have merit, too? It depends on the objective. At one call center, expanding the break room and giving staff a bit more time to hang out boosted engagement, which impacted productivity and knowledge sharing. At Norwegian telecom company Telenor, staff had no assigned seating and were encouraged to keep moving into different teams. That allowed for greater exploration, which ultimately resulted in faster decision making (goodbye siloed communication) and a shift in overall corporate strategy.
"One thing I’m finding is the notion there are a lot of informal social networks inside of organizations," says Lindsay. From chat rooms like Yammer and Slack to actual gatherings in a break room, these communication networks have the potential to reveal a lot more about the employees than an org chart.
He cites the work of Ronald Burt at the University of Chicago, who discusses "structural holes" in organizations. By studying informal communication, Burt’s been able to show how people who straddle different groups are actually more powerful than their titles would suggest. "How many years before they redesign [the organizational hierarchy]," he muses.
Along with the disruption of the traditional corporate pyramid, the authors find that coworking with people who aren’t even part of your company can also boost productivity. We creativity, work standards, and even income a boost.
This is also playing out in a bigger way in Las Vegas in Tony Hsieh’s $350 million Downtown Project. Magnolfi led a coworking experiment there that included Zappos employees, residents, startups and independent workers. After six months the data revealed a 78% increase in participant-generated proposals to solve specific problems, 84% increase in new leaders and 42% increase in face-to-face encounters. Hsieh’s using a new metric to measure results in the area: collisionable hours, in other words the number of probable interactions a person can have per hour per acre. Instead of the aforementioned cost-per-square-foot efficiency measurement, Hsieh’s intent on maximizing interaction to 100,000 collisionable hours per acre, per year.
This is a radically different way of looking at space, yet for Lindsay, the office we may be commuting to in 10 or 15 years may not look all that changed. "The bulk of offices will probably be the same," he says noting that legal firms will probably still rely on paper documents and desks and computers will still be in use.
The shift may be one that harkens to the past in such places as Venice where a mingling of library, fraternity, and charitable organization brought people together in the 11th and 12th century, or more recently, the Victorian gentleman’s club with its sofas and conversation corners.
As for the melding of tradition and disruption, Lindsay says there’s never going to be the perfect combination. Instead, he suggests, "There should be entire portfolios of workspaces," so we could use a different one every day. If that is in play, he says, "For once we can move at the speed of the people who are using them."