Workplace, space and connectedness

I think the most important work that happens in organisations today is social, and apart from purely transactional work I can’t think of any example where working together doesn’t create better, smarter, faster or more innovative solutions. And frankly – if the work doesn’t require social interaction, why haven’t you already outsourced or automated it?

In a study of three Italian consulting companies Economist Arent Greve[1] found that employee’s personal relationships (Social Capital) was the most important factor in determining productivity. Dr Matthew Lieberman from the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of California states that “The assumption that productivity is about smart people working on their own has been masking the fact that individual intelligence may only be optimised when it is enhanced through social connections to others in the group” [2].

Here at Optimice we believe that the work that really matters is inherently social, and that connectedness is the true differentiator. We aren’t the only ones believing this, and both Google and Yahoo have in public statements made it clear that the workplace plays a critical role in enabling connectivity. The link between workplace, space and connectedness is therefore a matter for serious consideration.

Space and connectedness

Did you know that if you sit more than 50 meters from another person you’d rarely – if ever – communicate (neither f2f or electronically)? Since many organisations co-locate business units, this means that you rarely speak with people outside your own business unit unless it is directly related to your work.

In the late 1970s, MIT Professor Thomas Allen researched the physical distance between people and how often they communicate. The result is known as the ‘Allen Curve’, and shows that “the probability of a pair of people in an organization communicating with each other declines rapidly as the distance between them increases”[3]. Allen found that there is a 50-meter barrier, and if a person who sits outside the barrier, then the communication literally is non-existent.

Allen Curve

Figure 1 – The Allen Curve

You might argue that the importance of physical proximity would have diminished with the rise of electronic communication methods. However, Allen repeated his research in 2006 and concluded: “Our data shows a decay of all communication media with distance”[4].

In other words: We communicate more with people that we are sitting close to regardless of the method of communication.

Allen is not saying that phone, email etc. isn’t used to communicate with people who are further away, or that we don’t communicate with people who are further away. We all know that email, phone etc. has enabled us to communicate and collaborate with people we would otherwise never have been in contact with. His point is simply that we communicate more with people that we are sitting close to.

Perhaps this was true in 2006, but shouldn’t we challenge this finding here in 2013? Surely all of the social media tools are removing the reliance on physical proximity.

There is no doubt that social media sites are helping us connect with people that we are not physically close to. At times we are even establishing relationships with people we never get to meet in real life. However, when you compare the frequency of interaction against those we are co-located with, physical proximity wins. Another way of thinking about this is to ask yourself this question: Wouldn’t you communicate more with a ‘remote’ person if you were co-located?

Our project work also shows that organisations have very clear location-based silos. For example, the map below shows the collaboration patterns for a logistics and supply chain organisation.

(The colours represent the two major locations/cities that the teams worked from)
Network Map - Location SilosApart from a few connections between the locations they are working as two separate entities. The old saying ‘out of sight – out of mind’ holds true.

Organisational charts, space and silos

Organisational silos are also created around the formal organisational structures, and it is a common challenge most organisations are faced with. When we then allocate workplaces that match the existing organisational structures by locating HR people next to other HR people, Finance people next to other Finance people etc., we are reinforcing the silos.

Our allegiance to the organisational chart – reinforced by physically co-locating business units and driven by KPIs  – results in deep silos.

Why are we insisting on co-locating people between whom collaboration is already a given due to the need for coordination?

Virtual collaboration tools have been put in place to enable efficiencies by bringing work to where the people are, rather than the other way around. It seems that the best explanation lies in the need for management to keep an eye on things, and that is most easily done when the team is within line of sight.

But there is a high price to be paid for the lack of diversity that comes with silos. Real break-throughs are less likely to happen between people who work in the same business unit, doing the same thing surrounded by like-minded people. What we need is to change our approach and orchestrate connectedness between different people with different backgrounds working on different things. The fine balance between diversity and cohesion is tipped away from the diversity dimension in the majority of organisations that we have worked with.

Orchestrating connectedness

To orchestrate connectedness we first need to baseline the existing connections. Social Network Analysis (SNA) is widely acknowledged as the most effective way to uncover collaboration patterns across locations and organisational structures. Here at Optimice we are guided by three simple questions that will quickly make these patterns visible:

  • Who do you collaborate with to get your work done?
  • What is the primary reason for this?
  • How important is this interaction for you?

By color-coding and grouping each person by location and business unit, the intra-location/organisation collaboration patterns stand out immediately. Below you’ll see an example of how quickly you can discover the collaboration patterns between various areas in a building.

Network Map - Across floors and levels

Using these insights about the current collaboration patterns we can now orchestrate connectivity be moving people who should know each other closer together. For example, if we want the people on 5H and 7H to have stronger ties, then co-locate them for a period of time and create incentives for them to make the best of the newfound ability to connect.

The power of SNA lies in our ability to be very specific about the connections we want to orchestrate, and in our ability to subsequently measure if it had the desired effect. As such it becomes a critical measure of success.


[1] Greve, A.,Benassi, M., & Sti, A.D, (2010). Exploring the contributions of human and social capital to productivity, International Review of Sociology – Revue Internationale de Sociologie, 20(1), 35-58.

[2] Lieberman, Matthew D (2013), Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Connect, Oxford University Press

[3] Allen, Thomas J. (1984). Managing the Flow of Technology: Technology Transfer and the Dissemination of Technological Information Within the R&D Organization. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

[4] Allen, Thomas J.; G. Henn (2006). The Organization and Architecture of Innovation: Managing the Flow of Technology. Butterworth-Heinemann. p. 152.