Your Health May Be Hazardous to Your Company’s Creativity

by edward tenner

edward tenner, a research affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution and Rutgers University, is currently a Visitor in the Program in Interdisciplinary Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Published June 22, 2020


In May 2020, the Centers for Disease Control released recommendations for the office of the future that appeared to upend decades of government advice — not to mention architectural fashion. Banished would be the open-plan office; in its place the once-despised cubicle grid, now with plexiglass shields if six-foot distances can’t be maintained. Forget about elevator pitches if six-foot social distancing and face coverings are required between floors, too.

While many cubicle-dwellers will applaud the recommendation for working windows in office buildings, they will also note the CDC’s caution that contaminated outside air should not be allowed to circulate. Indeed, how clean will the urban atmosphere be if the CDC’s recommendation to drive to work in single-occupancy cars — avoiding public transportation and carpools — is followed?

Proxemics 101

The new function of the city appears to be bringing people together in order to keep them separated. For Americans, that is not necessarily such a bad thing. Edward T. Hall, the cultural anthropologist who popularized the study of body relationships — “proxemics,” as he called it — also introduced the idea of social distance, which he defined as 4-12 feet, as opposed to personal distance of 1-4 feet (private conversation) and public distance of 12 feet and over. In his studies of cultural attitudes toward personal space, Hall found America to be one of the most socially distancing nations.

While six feet is less than ideal for disease prevention, it is well within the limits of impersonal communication. Far from a mandate to change workplace culture, it is a welcome counterstrike to the recent tendency toward what North Americans consider culturally awkward density.

Zoom Gloom

Given the guidelines, it is likely that many more office workers will be telecommuting at least a few days of the week — something that many will welcome. Domestic work preceded the rise of factories in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Swiss mechanical watch industry owes its beginnings to diligent peasants and farmers crafting parts for Geneva firms during winter months in the early 19th century.

A partial shift to home-based white-collar work will be an unparalleled social experiment. I recall fondly the still-paternalist Princeton University Press in the 1970s and early 1980s, which discouraged off-site work. Most communication was by typed memo, but social cohesion and morale were sustained by a quasi-familial atmosphere, with a patriarch, matriarch, aunts and uncles as senior managers and cousins as peers.

Other publishers also wanted editors on site. After leaving PUP I was offered a high-salaried job as publisher of one of a giant firm’s imprints, located in a faraway, dreary suburb. When I proposed working remotely, pointing out that some of the company’s own books promoted the new flexibility, the outgoing editor who interviewed me replied, “We just publish them. We don’t read them.”

He had a point. I would not want to work with a book editor who was not on site, who could not walk to the office of a production editor, designer or publicist to resolve an issue quickly and amicably. Even in more typical offices, there will also be the risk of dividing the staff between a face-to-face core and a more transient periphery with less familiarity and access.

The arrangements that spread pathogens are the same ones that cross-fertilize ideas.
Innovation Blues

Even if such disparity can be avoided there is another reason to fear the CDC’s workplace of the future: extreme social distancing can inhibit new ideas. The great medieval historian Frederic William Maitland observed that the vigorous political life of the emerging town could flourish only with a certain population. “There are some thoughts,” he wrote, “that will not come to men who are not tightly packed.”

So much of corporate life, higher education and scientific research over the past two centuries has been variations on the theme of tight-packing for the sake of creativity. I witnessed this as a science editor, visiting not only the nearby Institute for Advanced Study but also similar research centers from Santa Barbara, California, to Bures-sur-Yvette near Paris. Mathematics is often a lonely enterprise, but it always impressed me how mathematicians would spend lunch helping each other unblock their thinking. Humanists and social scientists have a different style of interaction but pick up useful ideas when listening to colleagues discuss their current work at meals and coffee — exchanges that may bear fruit only after a decade or more.

Jon Gertner, author of The Idea Factory, described the strategy of Mervin Kelly, the now-obscure Bell Labs CEO of the 1950s. Kelly was “convinced that physical proximity was everything; phone calls alone wouldn’t do.” The transistor was born from collaboration of closely packed “physicists, metallurgists and electrical engineers … specialists in theory, experimentation and manufacturing. Like an able concert hall conductor, he sought a harmony, and sometimes a tension, between scientific disciplines; between researchers and developers; and between soloists and groups.”

I have visited Bell Labs at both Murray Hill and Holmdel, New Jersey, and seen how Kelly’s ideas were translated into architecture. Offices and labs might have been private, but corridors were designed to encourage researchers to pop into each other’s spaces.

Does face-to-face serendipity still work? In 2017, IBM made headlines by reversing its previously liberal telecommuting policy. Defenders of the move cited studies that physical proximity in itself promotes “collaborative efficiency” in ways that even sophisticated telecommunication cannot. They cite experiments like one of “radical collocation” at Ford Motor in the 1990s, in which teams assigned to rooms encouraging awareness of each other’s work developed software more rapidly than those at conventional desks.

The Atlantic writer Jerry Useem asked an IBM trainer whether electronic tools could not also work. He acknowledged they could but added that “the research says those teams won’t be as productive. You won’t fly.”

• • •

Of course, there are also challenges to collaboration under the new guidelines. Practically speaking, even most large conference rooms will not fit more than 10 people at a 24- by 6-foot table while maintaining six feet of social distancing. Masks also conceal most of the facial expressions that seem central to personal contact. By the same token, masks will probably make voice amplification necessary. And with communal water coolers and coffee machines banned, productive chance meetings are even less likely. (Workplace friendships and probably romances were made in the age of giant central photocopiers that ended with networked PCs and compact laser printers.)

If we live in an era of inconvenient truths, one of the especially sad ones might be that the arrangements that spread pathogens are the same ones that cross-fertilize ideas. 

main topic: Business
related topics: Public Health