The Value of Face Time: To Work Better, Work Closely

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Heinrich van den Berg / Getty

Class of scientists performing an experiment, Studio Shot, South Africa

Now that we have Skype and Facebook chat and email and teleconferencing and AOL Instant Messenger, what is the point of actually having a workplace? Why not work wherever we happen to be and, when and if others need us, beam in our eyes and ears? Because according to a new study from Harvard Medical School, when we collaborate remotely, our work may have less of an impact.

To be fair, the new study, published in PLoS ONE, looked at the effectiveness of scientific studies, so it was a bit of an exercise in academic navel-gazing, but the results may have implications across other types of work. (More on How Not to Feel Lonely in a Crowd)

The authors analyzed a bunch of scientific studies, looking at how far away the participating researchers labored from one another. They then looked at how often those studies were cited by other scientists, which is a measure of how influential the work becomes.

They found that the closer together researchers worked, the more often other academics cited their study. This was especially true if the researcher listed first (usually the one judged most responsible for the work) and the one listed last worked near each other. The closer they were, whether they were in the same building, on the same campus, or on different campuses of the same institution, the louder their work seemed to talk.

“Despite all of the profound advances in information technology, such as video conferencing, we found that physical proximity still matters for research productivity and impact,” says Isaac Kohane, lead author of the study and the Lawrence J. Henderson professor of pediatrics at Children’s Hospital Boston and director of the Countway Library of Medicine at Harvard Medical School.  (More on Straight As in High School May Mean Better Health Later in Life)

The researchers, who went so far as to use building plans to measure the distance between researchers, found that on average, a paper with four or fewer authors who worked in the same building was cited 45% more often than one in which the authors were in different buildings. Usually, citations dropped off as the geographical distance between the first and last authors got bigger.

While this may just be another one of those egghead academic phenomena, other recent studies from the business world lend some support. One recent study suggested that conducting all communication by email leads to less engagement in a task. You need face-to-face meetings to build trust, empathy and a feeling of responsibility to each other. Some of the efficiencies that email and teleconferencing offer are counteracted by the inefficiencies of disembodied communication. (More on Why E-Mail May Be Hurting Off-Line Relationships)

“The question is, ultimately, which individuals do you want to bring together?” says Kohane. “If you want people to collaborate, these findings reinforce the need to create architectures and facilities that support frequent, physical interactions. Otherwise it’s really out of sight, out of mind.”

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