Should You Work from Home or at the Office? Science Has the Answer
“Physical, face-to-face proximity—that’s the killer app.”
Adam Grant is a world-renowned organizational psychologist, the top-rated professor at Wharton, and a curator of the Next Big Idea Club. Daniel Coyle is the New York Times bestselling author of The Talent Code, The Secret Race, and The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups. When The Culture Code became an official selection for the first season of the Next Big Idea Club, Adam and Daniel sat down to discuss productivity, creativity, and the surprising truth about where high-quality work happens.
Adam: I think belongingness is something we all look for at work. We crave it—we want to be part of a community. But we’re losing that sense of community in our workplaces. When I’ve looked at the data, especially in the US, people are much less likely to have friendships at work than they were a few decades ago. It seems like the social fabric that we’re looking for at work is disintegrating. What have you found is most critical to reestablishing that and giving people a sense that they truly belong?
Daniel: Being in the same space together for vast chunks of time—physical, face-to-face proximity—that’s the killer app. It’s the way we’re wired. You’re actually 34 times more likely to respond favorably to a request face-to-face versus email. If you’re just talking about productivity, you can succeed alone, but if you’re talking about creative groups, proximity ends up being really important.
Adam: Where does that take you on flexible working and teleworking? There’s a meta-analysis showing that as long as you work in the office at least two and a half days a week, there’s no cost to productivity—and people are more satisfied when they get to work from home a little bit. There’s a recent Nick Bloom experiment showing that if you let call center workers work from home, they’re 13% more productive. It’s not just because they save commute time—it’s also that they’ve been given real autonomy. They have flexibility around where they work, when they work, and how they work, and they don’t feel like they’re being micromanaged. How do you reconcile that with the fact that you want people to have real proximity?
Daniel: You have to divide your work into two domains: the ones where you need proficiency, and the ones where you need creativity. If it is just pure productivity, then remote work actually works pretty well. But creative work is a different animal. Ben Waber did an interesting study where he had teams of engineers deal with problems remotely, and teams of engineers deal with problems face-to-face. The face-to-face ones brought up the problem and talked about it four times more often.
Adam: I have a problem with that though, because I almost exclusively work from home. Are you telling me that I would be four times more creative if I went into an office?
Daniel: It depends. A lot of your work is just about productivity, like if you’re writing a book. I know how that feels, where it feels like digging a ditch, or maybe building a house. A lot of times when you’re hammering nails and putting up boards, it’s efficient to be by yourself. But if you’re deciding on the layout or designing how the ceiling should look, you should be with a group.