WFH? RTO? Remembering the Allen Curve and Why It Matters Now

allen curve innovation wfh Dec 14, 2023

A robust scientific finding from decades ago mapped the richness of information flows against how far apart people sat at work.  Called the Allen Curve after MIT’s Thomas J. Allen, who discovered it, it shows a precipitous drop in information flows as people were separated at work. 


Who really needs to be within 8-10 feet of each other? And who can safely be elsewhere?

For all the passionate conversations about new working arrangements for the knowledge working classes, we seem to have glossed right over one of the most robust findings in communication theory. 

It’s called the Allen curve, and reflects the conclusions of a series of studies that MIT’s Thomas J. Allen conducted in the 1970’s, published in his now-famous book Managing the Flow of Technology: Technology Transfer and the Dissemination of Technological Information Within the R&D Organization.  What he found is a dramatic dropoff in how much people communicate when they are separated by physical distance at work. As one observer notes, “The Allen curve estimates that we are four times as likely to communicate regularly with someone sitting two meters away from us as with someone twenty meters away and that we almost never communicate with colleagues on separate floors or in separate buildings.”

The implications are as valid today as they were when Allen conducted his studies, despite, or even perhaps because, of the plethora of electronic and other forms of communication we currently have at our disposal.  Indeed, a recent study by researchers from the Federal Reserve, the University of Virginia and Harvard University, called “The Power of Proximity” suggests that the Allen Curve is alive and well and very much with us, despite all the tech. 

As they point out, “When offices were open, engineers working in the same building as all their teammates received 22 percent more online feedback than engineers with distant teammates. After offices closed for COVID-19, this advantage largely disappears. Yet sitting together reduces engineers’ programming output, particularly for senior engineers. The tradeoffs from proximity are more acute for women, who both do more mentoring and receive more mentorship when near their coworkers. Proximity impacts career trajectories, dampening short-run pay raises but boosting them in the long run.”  Essentially, they found that being together was a powerful boost to human capital, even as it might dampen productivity for more senior people in the short run. 

This finding offers support to both people who argue that the office is a place for learning and mentoring and those who suggest that they are more productive when not in it! 

As Geoffrey Moore has wisely advised, we ignore the learning that comes with being together at our peril.  We should be intentional about why we are physically present.  As he suggests, just as our children’s learning suffered from not being physically with others at school, so our skills may be suffering.  As he put it, “We consume the skills we have, but we do not develop the ones we need next. We are harvesting, but we are not seeding…” 


This is hard work

So, if a team needs rich flows of information to solve problems, come up with novel solutions and benefit from being co-located somewhere, you’ve only got about 10 meters to play with.  Once people are outside that magical radius, much more effort needs to go into the sharing and processing of information. 


If people are on Zoom screens, not physically present at all or present at different times or on different days, the communicative benefits of close proximity disappear.  What that implies is that communication efforts need to be much more proactive if we want to regularly engage people working without physical proximity.  And this is hard work. 

It makes sense that beleaguered managers with so many other tasks to attend to seem to hope that just bringing people to a physical space will solve their issues with engagement, commitment and culture.  Indeed, a recent Forbes article makes the point that CEO’s find it takes a lot more effort to get everybody on the same page when remote talent is involved.  And despite massive grumbling and some formal protests, companies such as Amazon, Meta, Apple and Google are looking for staff to return at least 3 days per week. 


Small teams as the basic units of work

This has fascinating implications for what I’ve come to call the “permissionless” organization, in which teams can self-manage using technology for coordination and planning, in many cases changing the job of the manager to one of support and coaching.   For many organizations, the fundamental unit of work is a small team – what Amazon famously called “two pizza” teams (meaning that it can be adequately fed on two pizza’s).   And for many of these teams, there is simply no substitute for being together physically.

A fascinating example of the power of this can be seen in the case of Tesla.  Elon Musk famously insists that everyone be in the factory, whatever their job responsibilities.  But there is an underlying logic to this, as Ben Thompson, CEO of Employment Hero points out.  As he observes, “The Tesla factory manufactures vehicles at an incredible rate and Tesla’s people can make alterations to the design of a vehicle in real time which means it has to flow through all the way to management to sign off on. So, people in that environment need to be on the floor, observing what's happening in a real time basis.

95% or more of the employees at Tesla are factory workers and they work 24/7.” 

Small groups of people, working in close proximity to each other, sharing rich flows of information…Thomas Allen would have been gratified. 


Meanwhile, at Valize

We’re enjoying some physical proximity this week at our team offsite in New York.  We’re making plans for a robust 2024, including the launch of our new SparcHub Sage software, designed for small companies and teams. You can see a short demo of what it does at this link.  It is software designed to make implementing the discovery driven growth method easy and transparent.  We are also continuing to build out our learning guides, which inform learners at key checkpoints in the process, and which we see as a valuable tool for upskilling at scale. 


** Content originally published on Thought Sparks**