The Proximity Myth

11/02/2016 04:17 pm ET Updated Nov 01, 2017

Aetna and Honeywell both recently announced that they are drastically scaling back their telecommuting policies—not exactly the kind of news we look for during National Work and Family Month.

Aetna spokesman Matt Clyburn explained that their goal is "increasing collaboration and driving innovation." Honeywell CFO Thomas Szlosek noted, "A core belief of our senior leadership team is that people work better in close proximity to other people, where ideas readily can be exchanged."

The two companies are certainly not alone in making the claim that working remotely just doesn't offer the same opportunities for collaboration that working in the same location does. Allowing anyone to work away from the office, so goes the story, equates to losing out on the chance for impromptu innovation, netting in a less effective workplace model. Workers in the same space have all sorts of potential for meeting in the hallways and sharing spontaneous bursts of creative genius.

Sounds great. But Aetna has nearly 50,000 employees. Honeywell has nearly 130,000. It's not as if all of those people are sitting in the same office together, brainstorming the next big idea.

In fact, more than half the American workforce works for employers with 500 employees or more. In order to house all those people, office buildings for these employers are big. Often they span multiple floors, or are spread out over sprawling campuses.

What is the likelihood that office-worker Sam, sitting in a cubicle on the third floor by the fire escape stairwell, is ever going to spontaneously talk to office-worker Pat, sitting on the fifth floor near the elevators?

In my experience (and, I have a hunch, in yours), it's slim to none. In our workplace model that prioritizes time spent at a desk, Sam and Pat may rarely move from their chairs.

If they report to the same manager, or if they work on similar projects, they may see each other at meetings—although depending on the size of their team, even at meetings they may not speak directly. Otherwise, they are unlikely to spend any time face-to-face at all, and are far more likely to pick up a phone or send an email or message to communicate than to travel across floors.

And if Sam and Pat report to different people or work on different projects, I'd bet good money that they might not even know each other's names.

What if Sam and Pat sit closer to each other? Two people sharing a tight communal space are likely to talk in person fairly regularly. But will they also talk regularly with Casey sitting on the other side of their wall, or down the hall?

How close is close enough? And what if a team consists of 10, 12, or 20 people? Even in an open layout, how closely together can a group of people reasonably be expected to sit? And who's to say which connections might ultimately matter more—those between Sam and Pat (now sitting side-by-side) or those between Pat and Casey (separated by the rest of their team)?

It's certainly possible that Sam and Pat and Casey will end up on an elevator together and start chatting, or pass each other in the hall and make more than eye contact. And it's absolutely true that there are circumstances where that type of water-cooler talk leads to innovation.

But it's the nature of those interactions that's crucial, not the fact that they take place in an elevator, in a hallway, or by the water-cooler. Spontaneous workplace conversation tends to be about anything except work: it's casual, it's colloquial. It's the way that people get to know each other as more than just colleagues. Once those personal connections are made, a conversation that starts about an interesting news item or a shared passion for biking could well lead to a work-related epiphany.

That's precisely the same reason that two people sitting next to each other are well positioned to collaborate. It's not just because they are physically proximate (it's highly unlikely two strangers standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the subway will come up with the next big idea in business). It's because sharing that space over time more naturally results in casual conversation and a personal connection.

But 500 people (let alone 50,000) can't all sit next to, or even near, each other. And it's a logistical impossibility to pair people up in exactly the right side-by-side combinations that would create the type of magical synergy people insist is so valuable about being in the same physical space (Sam and Pat? Sam and Casey? Casey and Pat? Musical chairs?).

It's also poor management to wait by the sidelines and hope with fingers crossed that Sam and Pat and Casey will happen to run into each other in the halls and perhaps, over a period of weeks or months or years, develop the type of affinity that leads to greater innovation. It's not practical to expect that just by virtue of sharing the same general airspace, staffers will instinctively create personal bonds with their colleagues.

In reality, people sitting at opposite ends of an office building are at no more of a collaborative advantage than people sitting on opposite sides of town. And while face time should indeed be a business priority in and of itself, it only makes sense when it really is face-to-face, and when personal connections are the focus. At meals together, and celebrations, and other casual, social gatherings, where staffers should be encouraged to come together—from wherever they are located, far and wide—to get to know each other as people.

Unless you're willing to wait indefinitely for some sort of magical intervention, it takes energy, effort, and planning to foster and sustain those connections. But the rest of the time (the majority of the time), people's location becomes irrelevant—whether it's across the hall, on another floor, or on the other side of the world.