In a singular (and hopefully rare) global pandemic, we seem to have collectively forgotten our need for each other. Without thinking twice, companies are rushing to roll out remote work policies as if employees are robot machines that don’t need the human interaction of an office. As a result of one major unfortunate disaster, we have rashly set aside centuries of collective learnings about collaboration and teamwork.
Contrary to these split-second policies, the famous Westgate studies conducted at M.I.T. by social psychologists Festinger, Schachter, and Back proved that propinquity, or the state of being close to someone, heavily influences the likelihood that a close relationship will form. Management Professor Thomas J. Allen later applied this concept to employees when he created the Allen Curve, which demonstrates that as the distance between engineers within an office increases, the communication between those same engineers falls exponentially, dropping off almost entirely after a distance of just 50 meters.
Here is my advice for leaders who prize speed, innovation, and trust, as they determine their return to office plans.
Propinquity fosters innovation
But wait, hasn’t technology progressed so much that virtual relationships can be the same as physical ones? Not quite.
A major study entitled “Distance Matters: Physical Space and Social Impact” set out to measure the effect that advances in communication technology have had on the power of propinquity in social influence. The study concludes: “We have presented evidence from three divergent samples showing that the empirical relationship between distance and social influence, first documented 50 years ago, still holds despite remarkable changes in the technology of communication.” Behavioral scientist Jon Levy added earlier this year, “Even in the age of Slack, email, and Zoom, the fact remains: Out of sight is often out of mind.”
Innovation often happens when you overhear your colleagues talking about issues, during quick chats walking to the elevator, or the small talk before and after the meetings. These in-person, real-time conversations help get the creativity flowing. These close relationships and innovative conversations are essential ingredients of success, especially for ambitious startups.
Being together is energizing
Deep down inside of us, we all feel the importance of human connection and community. As management consultant Meg Wheatley once observed, “There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.” Humankind has long sought closeness in every aspect of life, from neighborhoods to social clubs to P.T.A.s to religious groups. Our natural intuition tells us there is something more connecting about a face-to-face interaction than a digital one:
- It’s one thing to watch an important sports game on TV, but it’s another experience entirely to attend the game in person cheering shoulder to shoulder with fellow fans.
- It’s one thing to hear a song on the radio and another entirely to see it performed in full concert alongside other enthusiasts.
- It’s one thing to develop a friendship or relationship online, and another to build that friendship or relationship in person, face to face, especially with a colleague in a company.
- It only takes one glance at Facebook to see that people talk to each other very differently (and make very different assumptions) online than they do in a face-to-face, personal interaction.
Throughout human history, great things have been accomplished by individuals coming together around a shared vision, from government initiatives like NASA’s space race to land a man on the moon to private endeavors like building Amazon, a company that reshaped the global economy. All of the most ambitious projects in human history were driven by a team working in close proximity to build and collaborate towards an audacious goal. Will your startup be different?
Propinquity can fuel productivity
So much of the debate encircling the remote vs. office discussion has centered around worker productivity. Advocates of remote work describe periods of intense focus and deep work that contribute to productivity, while advocates of the office cite studies that show employees working remotely put in longer hours due to much less efficient productivity during the day.
At Neighbor, productivity is not relevant to the debate. Productivity is more about hiring great people than it is about the setting. With a strong internet connection, we trust that each of our employees would be just as productive in Antarctica as they would be in our office. Employers should trust their employees enough that productivity is a non-issue.
Community is a network effect
Being in an office and working together in person demonstrates a network effects principle. Network effects occur when something becomes more valuable (often exponentially) as usage increases. This is certainly true of communities and teams.
As we’ve explored here, everyone benefits from face-to-face, physical interaction. Yet if a company simply provides an office and only a few individuals show up, then those exponential network effects aren’t able to take effect. An office simply becomes a lonely place to do work, no better than a home office.
True human and employee flourishing occurs when the conditions and culture are put in place to create a strong physical community, where no one is left out. In 2021, we need less digital interaction and more human interaction. That’s what we’re building by embracing an in-office culture.
Joseph Woodbury is the cofounder and CEO of Neighbor.