Rebecca Wilson from the Government Equalities Office interviewed Sally on 12 October about this article for the Government Equalities Office blog
In the 1970s when researching technical communication between engineers, MIT Professor Thomas Allen discovered a strong negative correlation between the distance that engineers’ workstations were set apart and the frequency of communication between them, and that we almost never communicate with colleagues on separate floors or in separate buildings. The dramatic decline in communication as the distance between desks increases is known as the Allen Curve, popularised in his seminal book ‘Managing the Flow of Technology.’
Allen’s learnings on reconfiguring the layout of the office to promote more opportunities for face-to-face interaction is very topical right now as organisations seek to encourage their employees back to the office after the Covid-19 pandemic.
Office configurations have remained as places to sit and work
A pre-pandemic poll by psychologist John Amaechi found that leaders and managers in workplaces believed the purpose of the office was to ‘observe people working.’ The fallacy that you can walk through an office and ‘see’ who is industrious, or not, has enabled a culture of presenteeism and the biases associated with it, to become entrenched.
Because leaders’ perception of endeavour and collaboration has been shaped by physical presence in an office, they have largely resisted subjecting how we work to any sort of process innovation.
The pandemic finally changed that. The demand for mainstream hybrid working represents a unique opportunity to finally bust the Allen Curve.
During 2020, human and organisational systems underwent a paradigm shift in how they worked, not because of logic, but because they were forced to do so by the global lockdown. Enforced homeworking finally exposed many assumptions about the conditions for productivity and maximising outputs. Not only did we in general adapt very quickly, in many cases we adapted very successfully. The solutions we require for the future of work are not those we endured in the past. As Peter Drucker famously said, “the greatest danger in times of turbulence, is not the turbulence, it’s acting with yesterday’s logic.”
Hybrid working means doing different work in different places
Hybrid is about separating work into different tasks and doing them in the place that produces the best outcome – a mix of home, office or third space. As people start to vary when and where they work, they will spend less time in the office. A positive workplace experience; social interaction with the right stakeholders, matters more than ever now that hybrid workers can allocate remote hours to get desk work done.
When workers plan to spend time in an office space they want to socialise; to mingle with colleagues in a physical environment, because they can’t do this at home. So as the office starts to compete with the commute, employees want their time in the office to be effective. They will not want to forfeit those hours by sitting in a row of desks on lots of Zoom calls, which they can do at home.
By varying when and how we deliver work, a hybrid workstyle also helps to reconcile the different demands placed on different people outside work. Popular leadership rhetoric that focuses on stakeholder capitalism these days makes no apologies for decades of inflexible work patterns that have hampered the ability of significant cohorts of the working population to contribute.
The Allen Curve thesis remains relevant
The Allen Curve communication thesis remains especially relevant now because it tackles the influence of formal and informal organisation and office layouts on communication. Many of Allen’s ideas have been successfully incorporated by architects and managers in the design of new R&D facilities. In later work, Allen teamed up with German architect Gunter Henn to illustrate how crucial the architecture of the workplace is for communication within and between teams - in this case, engineers, scientists, and others in technical organisations - with physical space being a management tool as important as organisational structure. They showed that the interplay between these two factors can have profound effects on the process of information flow in workplace communication networks, with consequences for innovation and productivity.
Leaders can further capitalise on new methods of working to build a capability for constructive confrontation within their cultures to improve problem solving. Creative abrasion, the process that brings together conflict and diversity so that ideas can be productively challenged, was first defined by Jerry Hirshberg, an automotive design leader, in his 1998 book ‘The Creative Priority, Driving Innovative Business in the Real World.’
Employees need autonomy over how best to work in a hybrid pattern
Optimising where you work based on what you need to do and who you need to see in person means that individuals and teams need control over managing their interactions to be effective. Organisations that give employees agency over how best to manage their own hybrid work patterns will enable all workers to contribute at their productive best. Autonomy is not only key to unlocking trust, it is an essential condition for positive interdependence amongst employees that makes them care about what they do.
Fixed rotations of the same groups of staff in an office will only sustain the homogeneity of the Allen Curve by stultifying the flow of different people in and out. Some leaders are talking down remote because you don’t run into people at the coffee machine. But if you try to control who is in the office all of the time, the likelihood of bumping into someone new or someone you haven’t seen for a while is reduced, ultimately limiting those serendipitous interactions that play a useful role in spreading ideas.
Supporting a dynamic flow of people in office spaces not only supports hybrid patterns of working by underpinning the value of in-person interaction, but can make best use of new office layouts being designed to enhance network building.
Why ‘strong ties’ weaken information flow
Around the same time that Allen was working on the influence of office layouts on communication, social scientist Mark Granovetter published an influential paper, ‘The Strength of Weak Ties,’ about the diffusion of information across networks that would appear to align with Allen’s theory.
Weak ties are the people you don’t regularly interact with while strong ties tend to be confined to small, well-defined groups. The argument is that if someone is strongly tied to someone else, those around their tie will also be tied to them, making those ties, or the information passed between them, redundant. Information and ideas passed along a weak tie on the other hand will often be totally new and therefore more valuable.
Hybrid working needs a systematic approach
So, there is no shortage of longstanding research that would appear to offer some robust guardrails for mainstream hybrid working. While this research may have been around for quite a while, it is extremely topical and still transformational.
While it’s true that mainstream hybrid working has yet to play out, Professor Laura Empson of Bayes Business School maintains that many professionals have been working in an ad hoc hybrid pattern for years. In a recent Financial Times editorial, Empson explains that this has “resulted from multiple compromises each professional was making to accommodate the competing demands of clients, colleagues and private lives.” And further, that we need to “move away from an informal, ‘undercover’ approach to hybrid work, and develop a more deliberate, systematic and transparent model.” Clearly there is a vast reservoir of creative energy that can be tapped if we access it in the right way.
To maintain our strong ties and freely access our weak ties we need to resolve the challenge of location flexibility that underpins hybrid working. In order to optimise what to do where and see who we need to see, we will also need the practical tools available that help us keep track of where these contacts plan to be and when they change location.
Collegiality, communication and collaboration is about so much more than co-location or simply being present.