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What does a 1970’s perspective on engineers in the office tell us about effective remote work?

Or… how do we apply the Allen Curve to Slack and Zoom? The Allen Curve is a theory created by MIT Professor Thomas J. Allen. In the 70s, he looked at the distance between engineers’ offices as a driver of collaboration, proving that proximity improved knowledge dissemination. It was a seminal study in organizational behavior, cementing an intuitive idea that hadn’t been explicitly looked at before.

Later, Allen continued his studies of proximity at work and the rise of email. Did the effects still hold true? In 2007, he found “rather than finding that the probability of telephone communication increases with distance, as face-to-face probability decays, our data show a decay in the use of all communication media with distance."* And he also noted, “We do not keep separate sets of people, some of whom we communicate with by one medium and some by another. The more often we see someone face-to-face, the more likely it is that we will also telephone that person or communicate by another medium." This seems obvious when you read it; the people you Slack with the most tend to be the ones you also video chat with the most. The two modes of communication enrich each other, each being utilized for its best use case but not solely relied upon.

But what about those people you aren’t Slacking or videoconferencing with? In his original study, Allen stated there was a critical distance of 50 meters for weekly technical communication, after which communication quality and quantity (of information shared) would decay. What’s the equivalent today where we have a corporate world where actual face-to-face may NEVER happen for some colleagues.

If we can no longer use physical proximity to generate knowledge distribution and collaboration, how can we build a virtual-first framework for the ideal office interactions? In short, what’s our best guess at the 50 meters rule for digital interactions?

In the short term, it’s on managers to create situations for repeated contact that might be out of the ordinary. It’s hard work to get everyone to join in for virtual team building, especially introverts. And small intimate leadership or leadership in training events, where colleagues can deeply get to know each other, can only happen so often. But repeated, interesting, valuable moments that bring together disparate colleagues will pay dividends for the teams that prioritize them. As we learned in Allen’s study, “The more often we see someone face-to-face, the more likely it is that we will also telephone that person or communicate by another medium."

If we extrapolate Allen’s work to virtual teams, there are three concrete things we can do to create an organization with more communication and wider knowledge distribution between groups.

Make it a goal: Being explicit and transparent is key in a remote workforce. Annually note how often people on your team are making new connections, who is doing the best at it, and how. Use these examples to create frameworks and strategies for other team members to broaden their networks.

Foster clubs and diversity groups: You want to engender at-work socializing that meets the needs of the team. Clubs and diversity groups allow people from different teams and backgrounds to come together and connect on something that they feel strongly about, whether that’s pet ownership or diverse ethnic backgrounds.

Long-term Training: Leadership and group trainings that persist over the course of months or a year, bringing together disparate groups, give people a new place to interact and get out of their communication comfort zone. Putting different types of managers or contributors into year-long programs gives them in-depth challenges to strengthen their skills and is good for bonding.

As a manager, you can also make sure you’re doing small things to ensure everyone’s face pops up on Zoom with some frequency.

  • Rotate presentation duties at all-hands meetings to make sure everyone has a chance to share what they are working on.

  • Make use of different file formats to share information. If it’s not something that needs to be saved/searched easily, you could ask colleagues to post short videos or audio files of their latest success, finding, or even failures? Rich media sharing drives a more profound sense of connection among the recipients.

  • When assigning project opportunities, be mindful of who would benefit the most from new connections.

If we can’t fix proximity, we can adjust for the frequency of interactions between different and disparate individuals. By making diverse interactions a priority, management can ensure that the bonds within their organization are both broad and deep. This focus on company-wide knowledge distribution will help push great corporations forward in this new world of work.

*The Organization and Architecture of Innovation, Thomas Allen, Gunter Henn. 2007

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