By GREG LINDSAY
WHEN Yahoo banned its employees from working from home in February, the reasons it gave had less to do with productivity than serendipity. “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings,” explained the accompanying memo. The message was clear: doing your best work solo can’t compete with lingering around the coffee machine waiting for inspiration — in the form of a colleague — to strike.
That same day, Google provided details of its new campus in Mountain View, Calif., to Vanity Fair. Buildings resembling bent rectangles were designed, in the words of the search giant’s real estate chief, to maximize “casual collisions of the work force.” Rooftop cafes will offer additional opportunities for close encounters, and no employees in the complex will be more than a two-and-a-half-minute walk away from one another. “You can’t schedule innovation,” he said, as Google knows well, attributing the genesis of such projects as Gmail, Google News and Street View to engineers having fortuitous conversations at lunch. ...
ONE reason structural holes persist is our overwhelming preference for face-to-face interactions. Almost 40 years ago, Thomas J. Allen, a professor of management and engineering at M.I.T., found that colleagues who are out of sight are frequently out of mind — we are four times as likely to communicate regularly with someone sitting six feet away from us as we are with someone 60 feet away, and almost never with colleagues in separate buildings or floors.
And we get a particular intellectual charge from sharing ideas in person. In a paper published last year, researchers at Arizona State University used sensors and surveys to study creativity within teams. Participants felt most creative on days spent in motion meeting people, not working for long stretches at their desks.
Depends upon who you are meeting, I suspect.
Or, at least, chatting is more fun and makes you feel creative.
I'm sure there's some truth to this, although I have a somewhat different perspective.
First, my experience is that I'm most creative when I stop socializing and finally apply hands to keyboard, usually late at night, all by myself. But, that could be an idiosyncrasy.
What I think is a more general truth is that much of what gets called creativity is actually more influence. People pay more attention to and are nicer to the people they meet in person.
Consider the prominent theorist of the "creative class," Dr. Richard Florida. He is widely viewed as brilliantly creative in his insights, despite a track record of written work that belies that notion. But, he has been relentless at getting his handsome face and his pleasing message in front of other influential people -- in person. Malcolm Gladwell is an even more well-known genius who regularly wows sales conventions.
In contrast, I'm a homebody. Business travel wears me out and makes me less creative. I get bored too easily to bother honing a single presentation that I'd do over and over. I'd rather come up with something new. Since I don't get my face out there much, it's easy to assume I'm a terrible person.