We’re more effective when we’re physically close to our teammates, but being in the same building as them isn’t enough, Dr Jordi Blanes i Vidal has found.
Organisations across the world are grappling with whether or not to induce workers back to their offices.
Google, for example, has said it expects full-time employees to work from its offices for at least three days a week. Twitter, meanwhile, has allowed colleagues to work from home for as long as they want.
But in the so-called ‘Zoomies v roomies’ debate, we’ve lost sight of what is actually better for our productivity in the workplace.
A study by Dr Jordi Blanes i Vidal, Associate Professor of Managerial Economics and Strategy in the Department of Management, and co-authors, has sought to find an answer to this by examining the impact of face-to-face communication on worker productivity.
Dr Blanes i Vidal and his colleagues studied the Operational Control Room of Greater Manchester Police, where 999 calls are answered and processed. Each call is the responsibility of two workers who need to communicate fast and precisely.
The setting, although uncommon as workplaces go, was ideal as a way of comparing the productivity levels of those who sit next to their colleagues - or at least physically near them - and those who work remotely. This was because, at times, colleagues from the Operation Control Room worked remotely with each other, while at other times were in the same physical space, sometimes sitting next to each other.
So how did the ability to communicate face-to-face affect the speed through which a team was able to deal with a call? Blanes i Vidal and his co-authors found that for the average call, teams were about 2% more productive when they worked in the same physical space as each other. But for very urgent incidents, the effect was much larger - they were about 10% more efficient.
When colleagues had worked with each other in the past or were of the same age or gender, for example, they handled the calls more quickly and more effectively, the study found.
The research, published in the Review of Economic Studies, also discovered that small distances, even within a room, matter a great deal. Colleagues who sat next to each other worked much more effectively than those who were at the opposite ends of a big room.
“Clearly something is lost when we interact remotely with our teammates,” argues Dr Jordi Blanes i Vidal. “The question is whether this cost is worth paying.”
“Our research suggests that for important and urgent tasks, sitting next to each other leads to more productive work. Being in the same building, however, is not enough as the benefits of face-to-face communication operate only at relatively small distances.”
There’s plenty of food for thought here for organisations, Dr Blanes i Vidal says. “They should be very aware of who sits next to whom as the benefits of co-location are stronger for teammates who’ve previously worked together. They should also be cautious of over-using hot-desking arrangements, as switching neighbours constantly can prevent the strong bonds that make communication and productivity more effective.”
For now, it seems the ‘roomies’ have won against the ‘Zoomies’.
Dr Jordi Blanes i Vidal is Associate Professor of Managerial Economics and Strategy in the Department of Management.
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