When Chance Encounters at the Water Cooler Are Most Useful

The researchers have a hypothesis about why. They also tracked billions of communications — email, chat and calendar data — among information employees at a dozen large global companies over recent years. They found that while working remotely, individual workers were more productive than before, and communicated more with people at different levels of the company and with close colleagues. But they communicated 21 percent less with their weak ties. Perhaps the video game developers lost the benefit of asking a co-worker from a different department to test a prototype, for example, or of running into someone from marketing and brainstorming ideas for selling a new game.

“I do think eventually technology will help here, but the stuff that’s widely available today just doesn’t do it,” said Mr. Waber, co-founder of Humanyze, a workplace analytics company started at M.I.T. Media Lab, where he got a Ph.D. “It probably would be fine if those initial water cooler conversations happened remotely. It’s just less likely they would.”

Mr. Dimon observed something similar at JPMorgan Chase. “Performing jobs remotely is more successful when people know one another and already have a large body of existing work to do,” he wrote. “It does not work as well when people don’t know one another.”

Other studies back up the importance of meeting in person at the outset of a relationship. In one, scientists examined what happened when labs at a university in Paris were temporarily moved to new locations during asbestos treatment. Working in a new building, with people who worked on different things, increased the probability of collaboration — even after the teams moved back to their original locations.

“Within a field, it’s not going to be as hard to meet people,” said Matt Clancy, who studies the economics of innovation at Iowa State University and has written about this research. “The harder part is when you don’t know they’re there, you don’t know they’re valuable to meet, you don’t know their work exists and is important.”

Meeting in person is important for strong ties, too — but again, it seems to be the initial conversations that matter, not necessarily being together 40 hours a week year-round.

Kristie McAlpine, who researches organizational behavior at Rutgers, studied 99 teams at a large tech firm, and compared teams in which people had greater flexibility — so they were in the office together less often — with those that did not. Being in different places led to less spontaneous communication, both small talk and work conversations — and consequently, to less idea generation, she found. However, when she looked at later stages of projects — after ideas had been formed, when people were carrying them out — she did not find that it mattered as much whether people were in the same place.

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