Who Moved My Cube?

Managers once discouraged, even forbade, casual interactions among employees. To many bosses, chitchat at the watercooler was just a noisy distraction from work. Today we know that chance encounters and conversations on the job promote cooperation and innovation, and companies craft their floor plans and cultures with this in mind. The results have been surprising—and often disappointing.

Consider the experience of Scandinavian Airlines (SAS). In 1987 the company redesigned its headquarters around a central “street” that linked a café, shopping, and medical, sports, and other facilities, including several “multirooms” containing comfortable furniture, coffeemakers, fax and photocopying machines, and office supplies. The new design was explicitly intended to promote informal interactions, and management broadcast the message that employees should find opportunities in the new space for “impromptu meetings” and “creative encounters.”


The Properties of Proximity

People often assume that proximity is purely a function of physical factors: how far employees are from one another or how close they are to a break room. And distance is important. The MIT organizational psychology professor Thomas Allen famously discovered that the frequency of workers’ interactions in an R&D complex he studied declined exponentially with the distance between their offices—an effect popularly known as the Allen curve. Even when they were in the same building, researchers on different floors almost never interacted informally, he found.

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