Just as we were getting used to bringing the benefits of the digital world to the workplace, Marissa Mayer upset the applecart by calling all of Yahoo’s remote employees back to the office. Her rationale was that Yahoo could not afford to miss out on chance meetings in the hallways that lead to the exchange of ideas and learning from each other. She asked employees to show up at the office to bring innovation back to Yahoo.
In her recent book, The Village Effect, Susan Pinker visits a small village in Sardinia and learns that regular face-to-face contact means we might live up to 15 years longer. When we share more we also learn more.
“Programs that promote face-to-face conversations and interactive reading between parent and child have had more than twice the impact on the language and literacy skills of kids from impoverished backgrounds than laptop programs have had.”
Companies have read the research. Face-to-face increases brainstorming, which increases knowledge sharing and creativity. Co-working spaces blend the best of both worlds. Remote workers retain the freedom to choose their own hours and avoid the long commute, while taking advantage of the ability to get together with others. Dave Nelson, in Co-Working: A Middle Ground For Remote Workers,, says, “…you can take any set of educated, competent human beings and they will be able to solve problems together.”
But it turns out the real trick is getting people who are in the same room to speak to each other. Co-working spaces designed for people to commune with each other – in shared kitchens, at bench worktables – don’t guarantee the desired results.
We’ve all entered coffee shops where thirty laptops are open on tables. No one is talking. One café owner in Montreal says her customers come to get out into the world, but she admits that while they might talk to her, they don’t interact with each other!
Do we need some kind of structure to ensure that our interaction within our community takes place? After all, we are not necessarily in a workplace like Yahoo where we’re paid to bump into fellow employees , or a village in Sardinia, where we have a lifetime to get to know each other. We need learning situations that actively encourage connection – in places and timeframes that feel comfortable – so that the learning and knowledge we share enriches our thought process – and our lives.