A friend and I recently started a small business together – she is now my co-worker as well as my mate. We get on well, communicate regularly and honestly, and we share the same vision.
Yet were we to get investment, I wouldn’t spend the money on marketing, staff or resources, despite sorely needing all three. I would spend the money on hiring a second desk in my co-working office so we could work side by side.
The reality of remote working
In an age where remote working is touted as the way of the future, this sounds almost counter-intuitive.
Start-ups are supposed to keep overheads low, and why would any new business hire office space when most of us are already hard wired for remote working?
Phones with the functions of laptops; high-speed broadband that turns your home into an office; Skype, Whatsapp, Hangout, Slack…from SMEs to FTSE100 companies, it seems we are on a mission to be together, apart.
Yet a new study from MIT suggests that the greater the distance between us, the less likely we are to collaborate. Virtual connections may lower costs and increase flexibility, but the inherent back-and-forth required for communication soon becomes complex. Ideas get lost, tasks get missed – and tension sets in.
Why collaboration is key
It’s not exactly revolutionary: you are more likely to collaborate with someone who works in your vicinity. Small businesses target their marketing at brands within the same city and economies of scale mandate that startups operate in a smaller area. It is a theory borne out every day in Le Bureau as co-workers collaborate on projects, share advice and expertise, and network to gain contacts.
But the study, carried out over a decade and sampling 40,358 published papers and 2,350 MIT-led patents, has revealed that the exact distance – and we’re talking down to 100 meters – can determine whether you and a co-worker collaborate or not.
“Intuitively, there is a connection between space and collaboration,” said Matthew Claudel, a doctoral student in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) and the MIT Lab for Innovation Science and Policy, and the lead author of a new paper detailing the findings.
“If you work near someone, you’re more likely to have substantive conversations more frequently,” he reported. “You have a better chance of meeting someone, connecting, and working together if you are close by spatially.”
The research proved that co-workers working in the same area were three times more likely to collaborate, compared to co-workers sitting 400 meters apart. For co-workers located 800 meters apart, the chance of collaboration lowers to roughly 50%.
Collaboration by design
It’s not just the chair you choose; the design of your office also impacts the likelihood of collaboration. The MIT study discovered that collaboration was highest in MIT’s Building 76 – the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT – because the building was specifically designed to promote inter-disciplinary collaboration.
As well as placing research scientists and bioengineering experts close to one another, the building features a long corridor, nicknamed ‘The Infinite Corridor’, that connects a range of specialists together.
Anatomy of a co-working office: how shared offices improve connection
Most co-working spaces are inherently designed to promote connection, giving members the choice of different working spaces and informal areas where they can socialise.
How does Le Bureau flow?
Desks: desk areas are open plan, with low partitions so members can see one another, but still have privacy.
Social areas: the kitchen and members’ lounge are both located centrally, within easy access to all members. They are spacious and well-equipped, meaning that members often linger to chat.
Meeting rooms: all the meeting rooms are glass fronted, which means that discreet areas don’t feel shut off or remote.
Events: even the 3pm biscuit basket brings people together. Le Bureau’s packed events calendar means members get to meet and form friendship, which form the basis of professional collaboration.
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