Innovation: Disperse or Congregate?

If you want to increase innovation, make sure your people literally cross paths more often.

David Wagner, Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

June 18, 2014

6 Min Read

There's an interesting economic disconnect between those who think people must get closer together to innovate and those who think technology lets most people work and innovate from anywhere in the world. One American in five now telecommutes, according to this article in Forbes. Global Workplace Analytics (cited by Forbes, with the original behind this pay wall) projects that number to grow 63% in the next five years. But at the same time that companies are letting more of their employees work from home, cities are creating "innovation districts" rich with mass transit to take advantage of proximity.

Which method -- proximity or dispersion -- produces the best results? If you're a business technology leader, what's the impact on the way your teams innovate?

The answer has a lot to do with what you think lies at the heart of innovation. Global Workplace Analytics found that 47% of the telecommuters it surveyed say they're "very satisfied" with their jobs, compared with only 27% of the office workers it surveyed. The researchers also found that the vast majority of companies report that their telecommuters are more productive than their office workers. Not only are they more productive, but according to well-being researcher Nic Marks they are more innovative as well. It makes sense intuitively that happier and more productive people would be more innovative. They have more time to innovate and have more invested in the company.

But there are two aspects to innovation: ideation and follow-through. It makes perfect sense that happy, productive home workers are more likely than their office counterparts to come up with innovative ideas, but it's also possible that those who are isolated from their colleagues find it harder to follow through on those ideas. That's because in all but the smallest companies, it usually takes a broad group with a cross-section of skills to turn a good idea into a revenue-generating product or service.

[What role does speed play when it comes to innovation? Watch and read IT Innovation At Full Speed: InformationWeek Video.]

Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyers famously caused a stir when she ended the company's telecommuting policy. Google, where she had previously worked, also doesn't allow much telecommuting, because management thinks it cuts down on casual interactions between different parts of the company that can lead to some of the best ideas. There's something to be said for an engineer, salesperson, and marketer bumping into one another at the lunch table or water cooler and hashing out the company's next great innovation.

That's certainly the plan, in large scale, of the innovation districts cities are bringing together. By condensing talent (including researchers, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, engineers, and business development experts) from multiple fields into densely packed areas, the belief is that they will be better placed to germinate and spread ideas that produce economic benefit, not only for companies, but also for those cities.

Is it that simple? Just stick people in a small space and they'll innovate? Before you start making 10 people share a 30-foot-long desk, consider research that suggests that all corporate and city leaders have to do have to do is pay attention to the bathroom (among other key office destinations). Previous studies around proximity and innovation have centered on the distance between people. Generally, that research has been hard-pressed to identify a significant connection between close proximity and more innovation or collaboration.

But a 2013 working paper from a group at the University of Michigan tracked people as they walked through their offices. Not surprisingly, those people seldom ranged far from a few obvious places: their desks, the desks of their department colleagues, the break rooms, any equipment they needed (the study tracked bio lab workers), and, yes, the bathrooms.

What they discovered was that the more overlap there was between the paths of two people who usually didn't work together, the more likely they were to collaborate. In other words, the types of casual contact that Yahoo and Google are trying to promote don't necessarily come because people are near each other physically, but because their paths intersect. The more times they cross paths, the more likely they'll communicate.

Think of this like a pot of water on the stove. When the water is cold, the molecules move slowly and don't mingle much. Adding energy to them makes them move around faster, at which time they start bumping into each other and transferring their energy. Stimulating innovation is about getting your people to bounce into each other as often as possible. Cities really do have the right idea. If you make it easy for people to connect, they will.

The real issue isn't one of dispersion versus proximity. It's one of intersection. There's no reason that companies can't arrange telecommuting in a way that creates more intersections. Whatever your work environment, try to build in more paths for people to cross. If your teams work in an office, consider mixing them up. Make them walk to see each other. Make sure they walk past people you want them to see. Put a network engineer on the path between two security experts. Or put a salesperson halfway between two R&D folks.

Instead of putting bathrooms or break rooms in central locations, put them in places that require people to walk by as many colleagues as possible to get to them. Put them on opposite sides of the floor so people can't just keep a small circle. In the simplest terms, resist the urge to sit teams together.

If you have dispersed teams, build moments of intersection into the way you meet online. Have more cross-functional team meetings. Consider Internet gimmicks such as chat roulette to get your people talking with new people. Try having meetings based on where people live rather than their job functions. Most important, take the time to make people aware of the need to intersect.

Truthfully, you will lose something with telecommuting -- casual contact between people with different expertise required to create follow-through on good ideas. But when you know what you're missing, you might find a way to have your cake and eat it, too. Help those employees become happier and more creative, but also help them find each other.

Our InformationWeek Elite 100 issue -- our 26th ranking of technology innovators -- shines a spotlight on businesses that are succeeding because of their digital strategies. We take a close at look at the top five companies in this year's ranking and the eight winners of our Business Innovation awards, and offer 20 great ideas that you can use in your company. We also provide a ranked list of our Elite 100 innovators. Read our InformationWeek Elite 100 issue today.

About the Author(s)

David Wagner

Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, leadership, and innovation. He has also been a freelance writer for many top consulting firms and academics in the business and technology sectors. Born in Silver Spring, Md., he grew up doodling on the back of used punch cards from the data center his father ran for over 25 years. In his spare time, he loses golf balls (and occasionally puts one in a hole), posts too often on Facebook, and teaches his two kids to take the zombie apocalypse just a little too seriously. 

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