When Chance Encounters at the Water Cooler Are Most Useful

Research suggests that initially meeting in person is helpful, especially for people who don’t work closely.,


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A key scientific breakthrough that would eventually help protect millions from Covid-19 began with a chance meeting at a photocopier — in 1997, between Professor Katalin Kariko and Dr. Drew Weissman, whose work laid the foundation for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

It’s exactly the type of story that has executives itching to get people back to offices. Chance meetings like this are essential for innovation, the theory goes. “Remote work virtually eliminates spontaneous learning and creativity because you don’t run into people at the coffee machine,” Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, recently told shareholders.

Creativity is hard to quantify. But research, including studies of companies working remotely during the pandemic, supports Mr. Dimon’s argument only up to a point. The data shows that in-office work is helpful at one part of the creative process: forming initial relationships, particularly with people outside your normal sphere.

In the past year and a half, that hasn’t been happening much, with large shares of American office workers still remote, and the Delta variant pushing some companies, including Google and Ford, to keep offices closed until 2022. A significant share of workers say that they want to return at least some of the time, and that they miss meeting colleagues in the office.

The research suggests that these missed encounters have an effect, but that the internet has fundamentally changed what scientists once thought about collaboration. Bell Labs is the classic example; it gathered scientists across disciplines in a building designed for chance encounters. But now, it’s much easier for people to collaborate and to learn about work being done elsewhere.

One study, for example, found that mathematicians were more likely to cite mathematicians they knew, and who lived nearby. But by 2004 or so, with the rise of easily accessible internet and online research archives, the geographic advantage had disappeared. Since then, what has tended to matter for scientists has been not their location, but the fact of knowing one another.

Social scientists call the people you don’t regularly interact with your weak ties, and have found they are important for innovation because they bring a different perspective or expertise. As a seminal sociology paper from 1973 by Mark Granovetter explains, people who work closely together know lots of redundant information, while conversing with weak ties is more likely to lead to new ideas.

It can take time for the effect of a decline in conversations with weak ties to show up, researchers warned, because such conversations are infrequent, and the result is more likely to be a lag in innovation rather than a decline in immediate productivity.

A new analysis of announcements by the 50 largest public video game companies, by Ben Waber and Zanele Munyikwa, found that companies that moved to remote work during the pandemic had more delays in new products than before the pandemic, while those that worked in person did not.

The researchers have a hypothesis about why. They also tracked billions of communications — email, chat and calendar data — among information employees at a dozen large global companies over recent years. They found that while working remotely, individual workers were more productive than before, and communicated more with people at different levels of the company and with close colleagues. But they communicated 21 percent less with their weak ties. Perhaps the video game developers lost the benefit of asking a co-worker from a different department to test a prototype, for example, or of running into someone from marketing and brainstorming ideas for selling a new game.

“I do think eventually technology will help here, but the stuff that’s widely available today just doesn’t do it,” said Mr. Waber, co-founder of Humanyze, a workplace analytics company started at M.I.T. Media Lab, where he got a Ph.D. “It probably would be fine if those initial water cooler conversations happened remotely. It’s just less likely they would.”

Mr. Dimon observed something similar at JPMorgan Chase. “Performing jobs remotely is more successful when people know one another and already have a large body of existing work to do,” he wrote. “It does not work as well when people don’t know one another.”

Other studies back up the importance of meeting in person at the outset of a relationship. In one, scientists examined what happened when labs at a university in Paris were temporarily moved to new locations during asbestos treatment. Working in a new building, with people who worked on different things, increased the probability of collaboration — even after the teams moved back to their original locations.

“Within a field, it’s not going to be as hard to meet people,” said Matt Clancy, who studies the economics of innovation at Iowa State University and has written about this research. “The harder part is when you don’t know they’re there, you don’t know they’re valuable to meet, you don’t know their work exists and is important.”

Meeting in person is important for strong ties, too — but again, it seems to be the initial conversations that matter, not necessarily being together 40 hours a week year-round.

Kristie McAlpine, who teaches organizational behavior at Rutgers, studied 99 teams at a large tax firm, and compared teams in which people had greater flexibility — so they were in the office together less often — with those that did not. Being in different places led to less spontaneous communication, both small talk and work conversations — and consequently, to less idea generation, she found. However, when she looked at later stages of projects — after ideas had been formed, when people were carrying them out — she did not find that it mattered as much whether people were in the same place.

“It doesn’t mean scrap all remote work,” she said. “It could be that when working on mature projects, you don’t need conversations in the hallway.”

In fact, long hours of in-person work can end up decreasing innovation because that type of schedule doesn’t work for many people, like people with disabilities, people excluded from office in-groups, and those responsible for the care of young children or ailing relatives.

Another study, using location tracking technology to follow scientists and engineers at a global manufacturing firm, found that people who often walked by one another in the office, like on their way to the printer or the restroom, were significantly more likely to end up collaborating, especially at the beginning of projects.

“For most collaboration, takeoff is the most challenging bit, and that’s when we find co-location is most helpful,” said Felichism W. Kabo, a research scientist at the University of Michigan and the study’s author. “When people have a prior relationship, it’s much easier to sustain that virtually.”

There are ways for organizations to encourage meetings with people who don’t know one another, researchers said. For companies bringing workers back to the office a few days per week, it can help to require that people are in the office on the same days.

For remote workers, there are apps to try to foster these connections. Donut Watercooler, on Slack, encourages small talk. Some companies have been hosting virtual book clubs or cooking classes. Spark Collaboration randomly matches employees for one-on-one conversations, and organizations have been doing the same thing with Zoom. Online tools like Airmeet and Gather allow people to mill around and run into others — all virtually.

For Professor Kariko, there was a long period when it seemed that her research on messenger RNA would never get funding. It was so different from that of her close colleagues, she has said, that it had little support. It took that encounter at the copy machine — meeting Dr. Weissman, who brought a different perspective and a desire to make a vaccine — to change that.

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