During a performance review, I once had a supervisor ask why I didn’t collaborate more on projects with a coworker that lives in New York (I’m in San Francisco). We had Slack, email and Hangouts at our disposal, but at the end of the day the real answer was simply “because he lives across the country”. No matter how good your virtual tools are, connecting with people who work outside your office on projects can get complicated fast. Now there’s science out there to actually back that theory up.
Image credit: Pexals
A recent MIT study found that the closer you are physically located to a person, the more likely you are to collaborate with them. While my first reaction was “No kidding!” the obvious answer isn’t quite as obvious as you might (and I did) think.
While clearly, you’re going to be more likely to collaborate with someone that works in the same office, or at least the same city, than someone that lives across the country, where you sit in that office can also come into play.
Researchers looked at 40,358 published papers and 2350 patents that stemmed from MIT research between the years 2004 and 2014. In it they discovered that how close you sit to a person can have a dramatic effect on whether or not you’ll collaborate with them. Even a few dozen metres can make a huge difference.
“Intuitively, there is a connection between space and collaboration,” Claudel observes. “That is, you have a better chance of meeting someone, connecting, and working together if you are close by spatially.” Even so, he says, “It was an exciting result to find that across papers and patents, and specifically for transdisciplinary collaborations.” He adds, “In many ways, this data really confirms the Allen Curve.”
The Allen Curve? That’s a theory created by Thomas Allen, a professor emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the author of the 1977 book Managing the Flow of Technology.
His curve is, well, a curve and proves that collaboration and interaction diminish the further you move away from someone. Even 10m can make a difference.
In the MIT study, they found that people who worked in the same workspace were three times as likely to collaborate on papers with those sitting in their same area than they were people working 400m away. When two people moved 800m apart, the chance of collaboration was nearly halved.
The big takeaway here is that if you want to collaborate with someone on a project, be it an academic paper or planning a party, the first step to success is to get in physical proximity to that person.