On Spatial Boundaries and Face-to-Face Interaction
Why do companies deploy open office layouts? A major justification is the idea that removing spatial boundaries between colleagues will generate increased collaboration and smarter collective intelligence.
As I learned in a fascinating new study, published earlier this week in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, there was good reason to believe that this might be true. As the study’s authors, Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban, note:
“[T]he notion that propinquity, or proximity, predicts social interaction — driving the formation of social ties and therefore information exchange and collaboration — is one of the most robust findings in sociology.”
But when researchers turned their attention to the specific impact of open offices on interaction, the results were mixed. Perhaps troubled by this inconsistency, Bernstein and Turban decided to get to the bottom of this issue.
Prior studies of open offices had relied on imprecise measures such as self-reported activity logs to quantify interactions before and after a shift to an open office plan. Bernstein and Turban tried something more accurate: they had subjects wear devices around their neck that directly measured every face-to-face encounter. They also used email and IM server logs to determine exactly how much the volume of electronic interactions changed.
New readers of this blog might not know that back in 2012 I published a book about career satisfaction. It was titled So Good They Can’t Ignore You.
The book draws from interviews and relevant scientific research to answer a simple but important question: How do people end up passionate about what they do for a living?
Early in the book I make a provocative claim: the popular advice that you should “follow your passion” is counterproductive in the sense that it will likely reduce the probability that you end up loving your work.
I detail two reasons why “follow your passion” is bad advice:
The first reason is that most people don’t have a clear pre-defined passion to follow. This is especially true if you consider young people who are just setting out on their own for the first time. The advice to “follow your passion” is frustratingly meaningless if, like many people, you don’t have a passion to follow.
The second reason is that we don’t have much evidence that matching your job to a pre-existing interest makes you more likely to find that work satisfying. The properties we know lead people to enjoy their work — such as autonomy, mastery, and relationships — have little to do with whether or not the work matches an established inclination.
What works better? Put in the hard work to master something rare and valuable, then deploy this leverage to steer your working life in directions that resonate.
Earlier this week, the Washington Postpublished an article on the digital wellness movement, which attempts to use technology to help cure some of the issues caused by technology.
This movement, for example, is responsible for an app that “plants a tree” each time you put down your phone, and then shows the tree withering and dying when you pick the phone back up. It also produced a popular plug-in that displays, each time you go online, the number of days left in your expected lifetime.
Even Apple is getting involved in digital wellness. Their new suite of “wellbeing” features in iOS includes a wake-up screen that helps you “gently [ease] into your day” when you pick up your phone in the morning, and an improved Siri that makes suggestions about optimal notification settings.
I recognize that digital tools have a useful role to play in productivity. I’ve long advised, for example, that people use internet blocking software like Freedom to help jumpstart deep work training.
But something about this growing digital wellness movement makes me uneasy, and I think I’ve finally put my finger on the source of my concern: it’s infantilizing.
A reader recently pointed me toward a 2014 interview with Jerry Seinfeld on Alec Baldwin’s Here’s The Thing. Around 34 minutes into the conversation, Seinfeld provides a fascinating insight into the success of his eponymous television show:
“Let me tell you why my tv series in the 90s was so good, besides just an inordinate amount of just pure good fortune. In most tv series, 50 percent of the time is spent working on the show, 50 percent of the time is spent dealing with personality, political, and hierarchical issues of making something. We spent 99 percent of our time writing. Me and Larry [David]. The two of us. The door was closed. It’s closed. Somebody calls. We’re not taking the call. We were gonna make this thing funny. That’s why the show was good.”
Lurking in this quote is a lesson that applies well beyond the world of entertainment.
Put simply, this principle claims that the details of the physical space in which you perform cognitive work can substantially increase the value of what you produce.
Many writers swear by location-boosted cognition. I include myself in this category (the above picture is from the mini-library I built in my new house to support my deep work.)
This shouldn’t be surprising. Writers make their living almost entirely based on the quality of their thoughts, so they tend to care a lot about maximizing what they get out of their brain.
A point I made at the end of my Winchester article, however, is that many other knowledge work endeavors might also benefit from leveraging location-boosted cognition.
Organizations that depend on elite-level thinking — tech companies, law firms, high-end advertising boutiques, and so on — already spend fortunes to hire and retain top talent, and to provide them access to the best information and tools, so it’s only natural that they might deploy extreme work environments to further increase productivity.
Unfortunately, this idea is plagued by logistical obstacles. As a reader noted in the comment thread of my Winchester post: “not everyone…has the resources or possibilites to buy a farm with a place like that [to work].”
He’s right. As our economy increasingly shifts toward advanced knowledge work, location-boosted cognition in the style practiced by writers like Simon Winchester simply doesn’t scale. There are only so many fantastical huts, forest sheds and personal libraries available for the aspiring deep workers of the world.
It’s here, however, that I want to return (tentatively) to an idea I first floated two years ago: using virtual reality (VR) to create similar immersive single-tasking experiences.
As I’ve noted many times on this blog, and argued in Deep Work, thinkers who produce unusually original and productive bodies of work often operate in environments that they specifically contrived to help support these cognitive efforts.
Winchester, I was pleased to recently discover, provides a nice case study of this rule in action.
I'm a computer science professor who writes about the intersection of technology and society. I’m particularly interested in the impact of new technologies on our ability to perform productive work and lead satisfying lives. If you’re new to my writing, a good place to start is the about page. You can access over a decade's worth of posts in the blog archive.
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