The Law of Propinquity and the Work From Home Dilemma

Courtesy of my colleague John Wade, I learned a new word on Friday:

Propinquity, the state of being close to someone or something; proximity.

Ironically, it probably wouldn’t have happened if I’d been working from home, as it was one of those serendipitous moments when someone looks up from a laptop and says “I’ve just learned something new”, and then passes it on. It’s highly unlikely you’d ever jump on a Teams or Zoom call to tell someone you’ve just discovered something fairly unremarkable.

But, there you have it: he learned something, but I learned it too purely because of my physical proximity.

The law of propinquity states that the greater physical (or psychological) proximity between people, the greater the chance that they will form friendships or romantic relationships.

Other things being equal, the more we see people and interact with them, the more probable we are to like them.

For example, in flats and apartment buildings it has been observed that individuals who live on the same floor were more likely to be friends than those who lived on different floors. John and I started talking about how we could see that in our own offices – with a certain set of people more likely to sit on the ground floor than the second.

This concept suggests that physical proximity can lead to increased opportunities for social interaction, and as a result, people are more likely to develop relationships with those who are geographically close. This principle has been observed in various other contexts such as neighbourhoods and educational institutions, where individuals who are in close proximity to each other are more likely to form social bonds.

In our post-internet, post-social media, post-covid world, does physical proximity still have value, particularly when it comes to creativity, innovation and discovery?

The Allen Curve is a concept that originated from a study conducted by Thomas J. Allen, a professor of management at MIT Sloan School of Management, in the 1970s. The study aimed to understand the communication patterns among researchers in a research and development organization.

Allen showed there was minimal likelihood of communication among employees who are seated more than 25 metres apart. Team members situated within the 10 to 25-metre range are prone to engage in communication at least once a week. Ultimately, those positioned within a 10-metre radius are situated in the optimal communication zone.

The Allen Curve illustrates the relationship between physical distance and the frequency of communication among individuals in a workplace. The general idea is that the likelihood of communication between individuals decreases as the physical distance between them increases. In other words, people who are located closer to each other are more likely to communicate frequently than those who are physically farther apart.

Updating his research after email entered the workplace, Allen denied that technology could ever replace relationships saying “”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.

It seems almost old fashioned to be talking about office design in 2024, but it would negligent to not consider these studies when we talk about team dynamics and communication.

The binary nature of the Remote Working Vs Return To The Office debate often dodges the issue about the vital role of communication when it comes to the spread of ideas and innovation.

A new research paper adds some weight to the proximity argument.

In this study the research team analyzed more than 20 million research papers published between 1960 and 2020, from 22.5 million scientists in 3,562 cities. They also examined four million patents filed between 1976 and 2020, by 2.7 million inventors across 87,937 cities.

Did physical proximity play a part when it came to innovation?

The study shows that across all fields, periods and team sizes, researchers in these remote teams were consistently less likely to make breakthrough discoveries relative to their on-site counterparts.

While remote collaboration via the internet can bring together diverse pools of talent, it also makes it harder to fuse their ideas. And as anyone who has worked in innovation knows, the fusion part is what often leads to breakthrough.

Importantly they found that remote teams were also less likely to engage in conceptual tasks needed to produce breakthrough research. But they were more likely to contribute to technical tasks, such as performing experiments and analyzing data.

As Peter Vanham quoted “Despite striking improvements in digital technology, remote teams are less likely … to produce new, disruptive ideas.” Perhaps the big tech companies instigating back to the office mandates are not acting entirely without evidence. Painful for us office sceptics, indeed.

Peter goes on to say “The challenge then, is to find in just which tasks remote work improves productivity and value-add, and in which ones it doesn’t.”

If you are doing solid repeatable work, or work that requires intense solo concentration, you can work from pretty much anywhere.

If you are in a discovery phase of work, and trying to fuse ideas together from multiple viewpoints (as we are at the moment at Bromford) remote working might be a hindrance.

The office may well be dead for the general worker, but if you’re looking for breakthrough ideas, it seems that who you sit next to really might matter after all.

Related: The Growing Bureaucratisation of Life