In the 1970s, the US government decided to look more closely into why some of their strategic engineering projects were successful while others were not. They wanted to understand what was causing the difference in performance. At the sharp end of this research was a young professor at MIT named Thomas Allen. His first port of call in understanding the differences was to focus on complex engineering challenges, like developing new weapons or satellite systems, that were being tackled by two or more separate organizations. These were either government agencies or private firms, and they were addressing exactly the same problems-problems no one had ever tackled before. With this, Allen was able to create a list of factors by which the success of each organization could be measured. These success factors would assess the quality of each entity’s solution and the time taken to create it.
The results were startling. The most successful organizations were those in which people communicated best. These people seemed to solve complex problems far more quickly and effectively. Allen then set about trying to understand why those teams were better communicators. He could find no link connected to individual traits or education, but he did find a link that centered on where people sat—in particular, how far apart their desks were.
Allen determined that it was physical proximity that was the key to high-frequency, effective communication and collaboration. In fact, when Allen plotted the frequency of communications against distance, it showed a dramatic decline in the frequency of communication once a distance of just 8 meters was reached. At 30 meters, it approached zero.1 This has become known as the Allen curve. It seems that being in close proximity has a far bigger impact on team effectiveness than intelligence or experience.
The obvious question to ask at this point is whether a study performed over 40 years ago, a time when few digital collaboration tools existed, is still relevant today. The answer is a resounding yes. Scientist Ben Waber has demonstrated that digital communication follows the same pattern. He found that engineers who were colocated were 20 percent more likely to stay in touch via digital means than remote workers, being in virtual contact four times as frequently as those who were not. This more frequent communication led to projects being completed 32 percent faster. With all the communication breakthroughs in the past 40 years, there still appears to be no substitute for proximity. It seems that being able to see people is more important than most realize. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense. We are programmed—from our species’ early days in bands of up to 50 people who saw each other every day—for frequent, face-to-face communication. This is also how we continuously send and receive group “belonging” cues that are vital to a feeling of togetherness and safety.
While personal productivity can increase when we work on our own, innovation and the creation of the new do not come from individuals working alone. They come from teams working together and with other teams. For that, what is required is collaborative productivity. This, it seems, is severely impaired by any barriers to communication. Donald Reinertsen puts it this way in his book Managing the Design Factory: “Colocation is the closest thing to fairy dust that we have to improve communications on the development team.” There are, of course, good reasons for working remotely, as those who created makeshift offices in their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic can testify. These need to be taken into account. But with an increasing number of organizations moving in that direction, it pays to be aware of the data, and to work hard to mitigate consciously as many barriers as possible. This takes an investment of time, energy, and money. Think long and hard about how to foster an environment for frequent communications and the building of trust and belonging. Think doubly hard about it if teams are remote. It appears to be the secret sauce for creative teams.