Face to Face = Better Teams

Team eating together

A good habit of British Army Regiments is the informal convening power of the Officers’ and Sergeants’ mess. Mid- morning, officers and NCOs will leave their various departments and sub-units and meet for coffee. It’s not mandated but this informal routine interaction drives a surprising amount of productive business. Far from being a thief of time it tends to cement social bonds, foster collaboration and resolve problems. At lunch, long tables mean everyone sits together. Many companies increasingly pay attention to how space is used in an office and companies, like Google, that understand this, pay enormous attention to it. They also prefer long dining room tables and have even thought about and try to influence how long people spend in the queue to collect their lunch. Why? Because they are deeply mindful to the power of chance interactions between colleagues in different departments or teams and the power of face-to-face communication.

Proximity influences both collaboration and the quality of communication. There is something that is uniquely powerful about face-to-face dialogue. When we are communicating like this, brain scanning imagery, shows that areas of our frontal cortex rich in mirror neurons are activated in a way that does not occur with any other form of communication – for example if you sat talking back-to-back, this neural activity vanishes. You are simply not connected in the same way[1].

Investigating the influence of proximate and spatial location on scientific research, one recent paper shows the importance of being in an institution, such as a university campus. This is because of the intellectual exposure to other ideas and influences, above who you share an office with. The authors commented, ‘Being physically proximate to others that do very different—apparently unrelated—research at one’s own university dramatically increases the degree to which their work influences and potentially drives one’s published discoveries[2]. Beyond this, team work in research is increasingly important. In science and engineering, for example, work by a team is 530 percent more likely than an individual’s work to be cited 1,000 times or more.

All of this is of particular relevance as most organizations and businesses wrestle with a post covid lockdown environment and try to find a balance between being in the office and working from home.  Many factors will influence that debate and it might be easy to say there are no right or wrong answers. But depending on context – if you rely on teamwork, if you are engaged in problem solving or innovation, then it’s hard to escape the conclusion that a high proportion of face-to-face engagement makes an important qualitative difference. The Army as a fine old heritage brand frequently has little idea of why it maintains certain habits but downing tools and stopping to chat is certainly one to keep.

[1] Jiang, J., Dai, B., Peng, D., Zhu, C., Liu, L., & Lu, C. (2012). Neural synchronization during face-to-face communication. Journal of Neuroscience, 32(45), 16064-16069.

[2] Duede, E., Teplitskiy, M., Lakhani, K., & Evans, J. (2021). Being Together in Place as a Catalyst for Scientific Advance.

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