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Why Working from Home Might Be a Mistake

by Katie Moritz
September 26, 2017 | Work

The option to work from home is a sought-after job perk these days. But you might be better off staying in the office if you can. A study of 10 years of Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers showed that the ones who worked near each other were way more productive than the ones that worked even 400 meters apart.

The power of proximity

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Even though we can easily stay connected via instant messenger, video call and phone these days (there's even an app that will give you virtual makeup for your video conference), MIT researchers who studied other scientists believe that nothing can beat IRL face-to-face interaction with coworkers sitting near you.

That's especially true when collaboration across disciplines is needed. For example, part of my role as an editor and writer for Rewire is to collaborate with our video producer, Josef. That's much easier when we're sitting right across from each other and don't need to make special arrangements to chat about our next multimedia project.

Working near your coworkers leads to better conversations more frequently, the researchers believe. To reveal this, they looked at the more than 40,000 published papers and more than 2,000 patents that came from other MIT scientists between 2004 and 2014.

They mapped out the network created by these scientists' partnerships and found patterns in where they were located while working together.

The findings also make a case for an open office-type plan where coworkers are easily within reach of each other.

The data showed that, regardless of the type of work the researchers were doing, they were more productive and effective as a team when their collaborators were close by and easy to connect with in person. It bolsters the theory of MIT Sloan School of Management professor emeritus Thomas Allen, who found that even simple conversations are less likely to happen between coworkers sitting more than 10 meters apart.

When FaceTime can't replace face time

The MIT researchers took Allen's work a bit further by looking at how architecture and technology plays into the proximity rule. Researchers in different fields of study work together often, sometimes continents away from one another. At MIT, collaborators from different disciplines can be housed in separate buildings.

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In these cases, coworkers stay connected through technology.

But this kind of collaboration isn't happening as often as it should or could be, the researchers found, likely because of the proximity rule: Scientists working in the same space are more than three times as likely to collaborate on a research paper than those who are 400 meters apart from one another. Frequency of collaboration is cut in half when the scientists are 800 meters apart.

The MIT buildings that pumped out the most publications were the ones specially designed for interdisciplinary collaboration, the researchers found, suggesting workplace setup plays a role in productivity, too.

For better or worse, it seems we work best with the people who are near us. It's sort of an out-of-sight, out-of-mind thing. If you really want to get things done, it might be worth it to stay in the office.

If you do want to start working from home, here are some things to keep in mind. Hint: When in doubt, err on the side of over-communication to combat that proximity rule.

Katie Moritz
Katie Moritz was Rewire's senior editor from 2016-2020. She is a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores and pho. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.
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