August 28, 2015
People have a tendency to confuse what is possible with what will happen. This appears to be a particular issue when we consider the effects of new technology. Hence the enduring talk of the death of the office, which technology makes possible but which people make impossible. One of the key areas of research that describes this tension is the work of Tom Allen at MIT. Allen made his name in 1984 with the publication of a book called Managing the Flow of Technology which first popularised the Allen Curve, a graph of his research findings which shows a powerful negative correlation between physical distance and the frequency of communication between colleagues. So precisely can this be defined, that Allen found that 50 metres marks a cut-off point for the regular exchange of certain types of technical information.
The book is based on research Allen and his colleagues carried out in the late 1970s with a group of engineers. They quickly determined that the distance between the engineers’ desks and offices had a direct and significant impact on the frequency of communication between them. We don’t need to be isolated to communicate less, just further apart.
But yes, some might say, things have changed since the 1970s and now technology has transformed the dynamics of relationships and made physical distance less relevant. It’s a point Allen himself addresses in his 2011 book The Organization and Architecture of Innovation co-authored with German architect Gunter Henn. The book explores how physical space, social networks, flows of information and organisational structure must be integrated to drive innovation. What it finds is that far from lessening in importance, the building is gaining a more prominent, if different role and that the physical distance between individuals is an essential element in the development of working relationships and the way ideas and information flow. Physical space is integral to innovation.
The book makes the following point based on its research: “Rather than finding that the probability of telephone communication increases with distances, as face to face probability decays, our data shows a decay in the use of all communication media with distance. We do not keep separate sets of people, some of which we communicate in one medium and some by another. The more often we see someone face to face, the more likely it is that we will telephone the person or communicate in some other medium.”
In other words, reports of the death of the office have been greatly exaggerated. This been said so often now that it has become a cliché in its own right but it always bears repeating, especially in a year in which the role of the office has been debated as never before following the decision by Yahoo to order homeworking employees back to the office.