The value proposition of unplanned social interactions….

The Blogosphere remains in its extended excitable state over the announcement from Yahoo’s CEO, Marissa Mayer on working from home (for background see here). The conventional wisdom on the reasoning behind her edict lies in the notion that somehow physical proximity among co-workers promotes productivity–a meme that is also central to the Bell Labs myth, recently chronicled expertly by Jon Gertner in his book, the Idea Factory: Bell Labs and The Great Age of American Innovation.

Today, this idea of a creative soup coming out of random physical human interactions was taken a step further in John Kay’s FT opinion piece, where he posits that New York City’s greatness comes as a result of the density of those human face-to-face moments.

In science, the empirical evidence does seem to support this notion of synergies arising out of researchers working closely in the same space. The entire village of Woods Hole, with its illustrious contributions to biological discovery over the last century bear witness to this idea. The Bethesda intramural campus of the National Institutes of Health and the relatively new Janelia Farm Campus of HHMI also have a similar cultural norms embedded in their scientific DNA.

And certainly the same is true for George Mason’s Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study. Our beautiful facility’s great room was designed with the goal of bringing our diverse scientific staff together. Many of the break out spaces throughout the Institute have the same idea in mind, although they are certainly less formal. The new Phase III addition of the Institute will take this notion even further.

From a theoretical standpoint, the key insights that lead to consequential scientific discovery are usually serendipitous. They arise, often not from a deductive logical progression, but rather from clues distributed like a trail of breadcrumbs. Those clues, many times, come from the laboratories of other investigators–and when those laboratories are physically close, the frequency of “clue exchange” goes way up. The analogy of genetic recombination seems particularly appropriate when thinking about the advantages of such unintended scientific sociality.

On the other hand, I am not convinced that if you build it, they will come. There needs to be a scientific culture which explicitly rewards such exchanges and both the inputs and outputs of such a scientific system need to be measured–I’m convinced this was one of Bell Lab’s secrets. Here at Krasnow, we are working to reify the reward-side of that equation.

Top down directives of the type Ms. Mayer gave at Yahoo seem to be less successful in science. At least one of our sister scientific centers existed for years with the rule that all scientific staff were required to dine with one another under the watchful eye of the famous founder. That place is now winding down with not so much to show for the luncheon kabuki theater.

Instead, what seems to work, is an enjoyable (and dense) workplace environment that allows for lots of unstructured work experimentation in combination with unstructured play. Google’s campus jumps to mind in this respect, but also too Woods Hole (again). Under these circumstances, there are lots of opportunities to sample the breadcrumbs of ones colleagues…

So to sum up: yes physical proximity is good, but only if it happens organically from the bottom up. I’m skeptical about the Yahoo story…