One of the oldest arguments for having employees all work in the same office (and, within that space, out in the open and not behind office doors) is the idea that if you have a bunch of people bouncing around together in person, something magical will happen.
Or as Tim Cook put it, “Innovation isn’t always a planned activity… It’s bumping into each other over the course of the day and advancing an idea you just had.”
So about that. As Claire Cain Miller reports for the New York Times, there’s no evidence that it’s true:
“There’s credibility behind the argument that if you put people in spaces where they are likely to collide with one another, they are likely to have a conversation,” said Ethan S. Bernstein, who teaches at Harvard Business School and studies the topic. “But is that conversation likely to be helpful for innovation, creativity, useful at all for what an organization hopes people would talk about? There, there is almost no data whatsoever.”
“All of this suggests to me that the idea of random serendipity being productive is more fairy tale than reality,” he said.
And, as Miller’s article details, believing the fantasy also requires you to ignore all sorts of arguments that cut against it. The practice can also drive out other kinds of innovation and stifle contributions from some members of a workforce.
To be sure, some companies and some jobs really do require being together in person. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach for creating a good workplace. But we’d all be better off—Apple included—if the fantasy of the miraculous conversation by the coffee pot was dispelled once and for all.