While technological advancements in video conferencing and other forms of electronic communication continually improve, they often fall short of communicating complex concepts and information. We have all experienced miscommunication because we missed subtle social cues, misinterpreted an email, or missed out on the context before or after a conference call. Meeting face-to-face is still the richest form of communication and has shown to be the most effective at social influence over other forms of communications.
In a 2009 survey of 2,300 subscribers of the Harvard Business Review, 95% of respondents said face-to-face meetings are “a key factor in successfully building and maintaining long-term relationships.” Being in the same place increases trust, a critical ingredient to the success of any innovation ecosystem. Other forms of communications such as phone calls, email, texting, and chat are regularly used to organize and amplify face-to-face communication. The more complex the information, the more important co-presence becomes.
Beyond formal communication, co-presence enables social learning through observation and passive transfer of tacit knowledge. Seeing the activities in an office or overhearing conversations helps diffuse knowledge with little to no cost. It facilitates the flow of information through small impromptu discussions that may or may not be the focus of formally planned interactions. These observations and “small talk” are the building blocks that enable learning and exploration important to facilitating innovative activities. As a result, workplaces that have higher levels of engagement are often more productive and innovative. Visual and auditory cues are the foundation of this communication. For this reason, weekly communications taper off significantly beyond 30ft. Thomas Allen demonstrated this in his landmark studies observing information flow. The Allen Curve illustrates the results of this research. His research further demonstrated communication increased by nearly 200% between individuals who worked on the same project within the same department on the same floor as compared to those who work with others located in a separate building nearby. When two individuals do not share either projects or departments, the difference in the probability of interaction between those on the same floor and another building nearby can by as much as 8 times. While shared purpose helps immensely, co-presence is critical to ensuring consistent and lasting information flow.
A study published in 2015 had the unique opportunity to analyze researcher collaboration at Pierre and Marie Curie University during extensive renovations from 1997 to 20110. Researchers had to be reassigned randomly to difference facilities throughout the period of renovation. This randomized situation allowed them to see the effects of co-locating individuals had on the nature of their research and with whom they collaborated. They did this by mapping location and cross-referencing publication citations. They found that co-locating lab pairs were 3.5 times more likely to collaborate, 6.7 times more likely to produce a paper together that ended up in the highest quartile of journal impact factor distribution, and five times more likely to publish in a journal that is new for at least one of the researchers involved.
These and many other studies continue to demonstrate the importance of co-presence to information flow. However, as networks grow it becomes quickly impossible to have everyone within 30ft of each other. This is particularly acute when it comes to interfirm communication. As we will see in the next post, The distance between those located in separate locations influences with whom you collaborate or with whom you maintain ties and like the office it also has limits before these effects of proximity quickly diminish.