The MIT campus is designed to connect people. Some structures, like the Stata Center, the Sloan Building, or the Media Lab Building, offer large lobbies, flexible labs, and common areas to enhance collaboration. MIT’s Infinite Corridor, one-sixth of a mile long, brings together thousands of people daily. Skywalks connect the research buildings on campus.
Do all of these design elements really help people work together? A study by MIT academics reveals new details about collaboration on the Institute’s campus. Overall, the study, which examines email traffic between faculty, researchers, and staff on campus, confirms that physical proximity is important for workplace collaboration, but adds new wrinkles on how this happens.
People are more likely to communicate via email after meeting in a restaurant on campus, for example, than in a crowded hallway. The study also found that email exchanges occur more often between researchers whose workspaces are connected via interior lobbies rather than exterior paths. And greater physical proximity may not replace email communication between people who don’t know each other well — they’re more likely to email each other even when working in close proximity.
“The study of how spatial relationships can influence social ties has long been of interest to built environment scholars and sociologists,” says Andres Sevtsuk, associate professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) at the MIT, and co-author of a new article detailing the results of the study. While previous work often used survey data to account for interactions, here the campus email information added hard data to the research.
“We were interested in exploring this idea of spatial relationship and looking at its more nuanced aspects that have not been well covered in previous research,” notes Sevtsuk.
These conclusions apply not only to MIT, but also to other organizations.
“These ideas could be explored analogously in other work environments beyond MIT, such as companies, organizations, or even public sector institutions,” says Bahij Chaucey, researcher at MIT City Form Lab and co – author of the article.
The article, “Workplace Spatial Structure and Communication Among Colleagues: A Study of Email Exchange and Spatial Relationship on the MIT Campus,” has been published ahead of time in online form. in March, by the journal Social networks.
The authors are Chancey; Rounaq Basu, PhD student in DUSP; Martina Mazzarello, post-doctoral fellow at MIT Senseable City Lab; and Sevtsuk, Charles and Ann Spaulding Career Development Associate Professor of Urban Science and Planning at DUSP and director of the MIT City Form Lab.
The Allen curve and beyond
A large body of scholarship has examined workplace interactions, often influenced by the late Thomas Allen, a professor at MIT Sloan School of Management, whose interest in the subject was spurred in part by a stint at Boeing. Allen’s research in the 1970s and 1980s found that greater closeness is closely related to greater collaboration between engineers, a phenomenon represented by the “Allen curve”.
To conduct this study, the researchers used anonymized email data collected by MIT’s Information Systems and Technology group in February 2020, a month before the COVID-19 pandemic changed campus routines. The data tracks the number of two-way email exchanges between on-campus research units, such as departments or labs; the researchers looked at the number of individuals in a unit to estimate the typical amount of person-to-person exchange.
The team then looked at the spatial relationships between the research units, to see how the built environment might interact with email patterns. Overall, the study covered 33 different departments, laboratories and research groups and 1,455 office occupants.
The researchers also modeled likely walking routes to the office or lab of MIT employees, based on MIT’s 2018 Commuting Survey, while estimating total foot traffic or crowding of every hallway and dining area on campus. Sevtsuk’s research has included extensive modeling of urban pedestrian routes using such methods.
More food for thought
Many specific and granular findings emerged from the study, particularly the idea that proximity matters with the specifics of the built environment. For starters, all other things being equal, workers in search units near the same restaurants are more likely to email and interact.
“Cafeterias are spaces where verbal and visual communication is an important part of food culture, especially in a research environment like MIT,” says Basu.
Not having to venture outside also influences behavior, at least during the Massachusetts winter period during the study period. For research units that are basically equidistant from each other, those connected by interior hallways tended to communicate more than those separated by exterior space, even when that communication was in the form of email.
“We clearly saw that if people’s offices are connected through the interior Infinite Corridor system, they are more likely to exchange emails than if the logical connections between their offices require exterior paths,” Basu explains.
Another downside, however, is that busy hallways seem to generate more brief greetings than exchanges that lead to follow-up communication. “We found that if the hallway where Person A may pass Person B’s desk on the way to work tends to be more crowded, it reduces the likelihood of A and B exchanging emails,” says Sevtsuk. .
However, this does not seem to be the case with busy cafeterias, which instead seems to encourage more onward contact. “A more crowded cafeteria might provide more opportunities to engage in group conversations, where new social bonds can emerge between people introduced by mutual ties,” observes Sevtsuk.
Last but not least, the effects of physical proximity are themselves linked to pre-existing relationships. For people who already know each other, research suggests that proximity leads to more face-to-face interactions; for those who didn’t know each other before, meeting people because of proximity tends to result in a higher proportion of emails exchanged, initially.
Many paths to walk
The researchers believe their methodology could suggest ways to place new faculty or staff in useful places where they could easily interact with others.
“It’s possible to use our results to identify where these locations are in each department and school,” Sevtsuk said.
Campus planners could also continue to build on ideas evident in the Stata Center and the Sloan Building, which have large cafeterias on the ground floor and “strategically position social lounges or dining rooms at places where access from surrounding offices and likelihood of passing [by] is the highest,” adds Sevtsuk.
At universities and tech company campuses, Sevtsuk suggests, when new construction projects are considered, it makes sense “to strategically assess their locations and circulation systems against spatial connectivity with surrounding departments with which they have the most potential for joint relationships. research.”
Granted, MIT, other universities, and large corporations can’t always reconfigure quickly. But over time, good planning and design can improve interdisciplinary work, collaboration, and generate chance encounters between people. Or, as the authors put it in the paper, “planning environments to encourage greater interaction between different groups can provide an avenue for connecting siled social networks and encouraging the exchange of information between otherwise parties.” improbable”.
Andres Sevtsuk et al, Workplace Spatial Structure and Coworker Communication: A Study of Email Exchange and Spatial Relationship on the MIT Campus, Social networks (2022). DOI: 10.1016/j.socnet.2022.03.001
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