The Allen Curve Holds

In his seminal 1977 book, Managing the Flow of Technology, Thomas J. Allen was the first to measure the strong negative correlation between physical distance and frequency of communication.

Allen CurveThe “Allen curve” estimates that we are four times as likely to communicate regularly with someone sitting six feet away from us as with someone 60 feet away, and that we almost never communicate with colleagues on separate floors or in separate buildings.

But the office is no longer just a physical place; we can enter it by logging on, attend meetings from anywhere, and collaborate on documents without ever seeing one another. It would seem that distance-shrinking technologies break the Allen curve, and that communication no longer correlates to distance.

Wrong. The Allen curve holds. In fact, as distance-shrinking technology accelerates, proximity is apparently becoming more important. Studies by Ben Waber show that both face-to-face and digital communications follow the Allen curve.

In one study, engineers who shared a physical office were 20% more likely to stay in touch digitally than those who worked elsewhere. When they needed to collaborate closely, colocated coworkers e-mailed four times as frequently as colleagues in different locations, which led to 32% faster project completion times.

Out of sight, out of sync.

Reference

Waber, B., Magnolfi, J. & Lindsay, G. (2014) Workspaces That Move People. Harvarc Business Review. October 2014, pp.69-77.

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