People Cooperate Better When They’re Close – And Not Just Spatially

By November 09, 2012

Working in the same environment as other colleagues and seeing each other every day fosters cooperation, research shows. But if you’re to work together really effectively – not just when spatially close but also when you’re separated by distance – the quality of the relationship is crucial.

It might seem obvious that proximity – having employees work together in the same place –promotes collaboration. It is, after all, the idea behind the ‘open plan’ office layout. Recently, however, an empirical study from the University of Michigan in the United States - A Tale of Two Buildings: Socio-Spatial Significance in Innovation – set out to test the truth of this assertion. The two-year study was carried out among 172 faculty members and research institute staff. Sure enough, the findings showed that researchers working in the same building were 33% more likely to collaborate well together than those working in separate buildings, and 57% more likely to work well together when they were on the same floor. So obviously, at a time when moves to increase mobility and home-working are beginning to redefine the work space and alter our ways of working together, it would be useful to know whether reducing the amount of daily contact between colleagues will adversely affect their basic ability to exchange ideas and co-create. However, Bertrand Duperrin, Social Business Consulting Director at enterprise 2.0 consultancy NextModernity, thinks this is unlikely, given the new communication technologies. “These technologies are a tremendous lever which can help develop an environment that fosters upstream collaboration,” he argues.

Focusing on the human side

Nevertheless, while technology helps to free you from space-time constraints, it won’t eliminate the human dimension, warns Duperrin, insisting that “it’s definitely a mistake to try to separate technology from the human aspect and the cultural dimension.” He means of course that even though technology helps people to keep in touch and collaborate remotely, it would be unwise to completely cut the physical link between them. Technology cannot entirely replace ‘people contact’. Trust is another important factor. So if people are going to work effectively together via a range of diverse channels, they really need to establish a human relationship in advance, and that’s true whether they’re going to be sharing an office or working remotely, stresses Bertrand Duperrin. It helps to know the people you work with and understand their needs. And here we see the limits of technology. “Technology alone cannot foster the human dimension or help people get to know each other,” he points out.

Collaboration means more than just tools

Many firms nowadays are creating in-company communities, with the aim of encouraging their employees to work together more closely, but that won’t work unless the employees really get the point, underlines the NextModernity expert. If, on the other hand, a solid core of human relationships already exists, technology can help to take this further, social networks being one of the tools that can bring benefits here with their dual dimensions: collaboration and networking. Social media enable people to get together according to their interests, and to create relationships quite apart from any specific project they’re working on. “Using the networks provides a means of getting to know people through their profiles, through the contributions that they’ve posted on the site over time. Then, when people find themselves working together, they’re more likely to collaborate smoothly as they will already have established some kind of relationship,” argues Bertrand Duperrin.

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