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Leading Companies Prioritize in-Person Collaboration: Here’s The Research

a big group of professionals working together
Micah Remley
Published on

I think most company leaders would agree with me when I say that, in the modern workplace, collaboration is the foundation for company performance and success. Collaboration is that magic that occurs when creativity, innovation, and amazing teamwork intersect to create exceptional results.  Seemingly, everyone wants to create a more collaborative work environment.

But, in the post-pandemic world, it has struck me how few organizations look at the data and science of collaboration and instead make decisions based on opinions, thoughts, and feelings.  It turns out that there is a rich set of research on the science of collaboration and productivity, and this can be used by workplace leaders to make their companies more effective.

With the return to office discussion still raging 4 years after the pandemic sent us all home, this blog post will explore the scientific research into the link between productivity and collaboration in business.

And, spoiler alert: In-person collaboration is much more important than many people would like you to believe. 

Did you know that 90% of all interactions in the office happen at a person's individual desk?

Why is Collaboration Important?

A collaborative environment is one where people come together, leveraging each other's strengths and perspectives in order to drive innovation, efficiency, and growth. 

Effective collaboration is marked by open communication, mutual trust, and a culture of teamwork that fosters creativity and adaptability. It's the cornerstone of modern organizational success, facilitating agility in an ever-evolving business landscape.

Effective collaboration can give any business a competitive advantage over rivals who don’t collaborate as well. The social science agrees, finding that:

Companies that actively work to leverage team collaboration as an organizational skill are five times more likely to be high-performing organizations, according to a joint study by The Institute for Corporate Productivity and Babson College.

In-Person Collaboration and Better Business, According to Research

The science here is pretty clear that in-person teams are more collaborative and more productive than remote teams.  There are two reasons why people are more collaborative in person and they are highlighted in the research on the topic:

  1. Knowledge Sharing. People share knowledge more freely when they are in close proximity to other people in a workplace.  This is the first thing most people think of when they think of in-person collaboration - it’s easier to learn from those around you given the ease of in-person communication. 
  2. Motivation. People are motivated more when they are physically in the presence of other people on the same team.  This increase in performance in the in-person workplace is built on the same principles of why people go to the gym to workout, why sports teams practice together, or why people join book clubs to read more. Seeing other people work hard and do good things is a motivator.

Putting the thoughts and feelings aside, the empirical research here is deep. Numerous research studies highlight the benefits of in-person work on collaboration and productivity in a number of settings. Here's the breakdown.

Meetings are an important component of building more collaborative teams.

Boost Individual Job Performance

A Northwestern University study shows that sitting near a high-performing employee can make someone better at their job. The study looked at employees at a big tech firm and found that when an employee sat within 25 feet of a high performer, that proximity -- independent of other factors (including remote collaboration tools) -- boosted job performance by 15%. 

When the neighboring employees had complementary skill sets (think one-person was a people-person and one person was a technical-person) that 15% “baseline” performance improvement became even larger.

The takeaway: If you want to boost performance, strategically seat team members near high-performers.

Improve Team Performance 

Did you know that teammates are more effective when they are co-located in the same room?

Research from the Copenhagen Business School and the London School of Economics found that 911 call operators were at a minimum 2% more effective than their counterparts that worked in different spaces.

Even more importantly, employees were 10% more effective in time-sensitive and critical situations 10% more effective when co-located in the same room.

Similar to the Northwestern research, proximity was a major theme here. Employees had to be in close proximity to achieve collaboration and productivity benefits.

The takeaway: The researchers said it best. "If you sit on the other side of the room from someone, you might as well be on the other side of the city."

Surface More Breakthrough Ideas

In-person work leads to more business breakthroughs than remote work, according to research published in the Journal Nature in November 2023.

The study looked at millions of scientific research papers and ultimately concluded that teams working together in person were more likely to focus on conceptual tasks - the kind that are likely to produce disruptive new ideas. Researchers who collaborated remotely were likelier to do technical work like data analysis. 

Interestingly, the researchers found that among remote teams, if one person had a higher role or status, the amount of innovation was even worse. However, for in-person teams, the status or position of team members didn’t have any impact on breakthrough ideas.

“If you want to encourage radical innovation, you’ve got to bring people together," explained the research report. "You cannot just rely on digital infrastructure.” 

The takeaway: In-person work is better for more junior team members and serves as an escalator for new talent.

Increase Effective Communication

Research published in the Harvard Business Review found that remote employees communicated about their projects 80% less than co-located team members did, and in 17% of assignments, didn’t communicate about them at all.

Additionally, the same research found that employees on the same team co-located on the same floor of an office were 6 times more likely to interact.  Even more impressive is that employees on different teams were 9 times more likely to interact if they were located on the same floor of an office.

The takeaway: If team members need to interact to achieve a project milestone on time, they need to be co-located.

What are the implications for Companies and the Workplace?

With the research clearly showing that in-person work helps foster collaboration and, ultimately, productivity and innovation, you are probably asking how you put this research to practice in your company.  There are three areas where you should focus your attention.  

  • Hybrid work policies and in-person work expectations
  • Your collaboration culture
  • Your workplace strategy

In my next blog post, I will explore each of these areas in more detail to set your workplace up for collaboration success.

It's not just about business outcomes, either. Teams get a chance to know each other on a more personal level when meeting face-to-face.

Bottom Line: The Office, and How You Use It, Matters

The research and data is clear: in person collaboration improves productivity and company performance.  Now workplace managers need to put this research to work in helping companies improve how they are implementing flexible work policies and workplaces.

To assist in this journey, Robin has rolled out a new tool, the Workplace Collaboration Score, to help you judge how effective your office is at creating a collaborative environment.  It’s built on the research and science used in this blog post, and can help guide your workplace policies and design.

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Return to Office Report 2024

Does your office collaboration need a reboot?

Find out if your workplace strategy is a hit or a miss.

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Does your office collaboration need a reboot?

Find out if your workplace strategy is a hit or a miss.

office map
an employee headshotan employee headshotan employee headshotan employee headshot