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The Human Factor

Whenever I am asked if the office will disappear, I resort to one psychological fact. Human beings are social animals who need physical contact to thrive.

Consider how important the handshake is upon being introduced in a business context. Or, how language conveys the importance of physical presence in idioms such as “let’s get in touch” or “he failed to grasp the import of my remarks.” One of the findings of a 10-year study by the MacArthur Foundation is that those who live longest are those who continually have interactions with people (outside physical/medical conditions) or meetings with larger organizational groups. [21]

In the middle of the workday, talking to a real, live person can give us a surge of energy. “In-person contact stimulates an emotional reaction,” says Lawrence Honig, a neurologist at Columbia University, adding that hormones are higher when people are face-to-face. And research studies indicated that face-to-face contact stimulates the attention and pleasure neurotransmitter dopamine, as well as serotonin, a neurotransmitter that reduces fear and worry. People seem to be hard-wired to need other people. [22]

Edward M. Hallowell, a noted psychiatrist and author of The Human Moment at Work in the Harvard Business Review relates this story: A CEO in speaking about his business once said, “high tech requires high touch.” He explained that every time his company made another part of its operations virtual—moving salespeople entirely into the field, for instance— the company’s culture suffered. So he had developed a policy that required all virtual teams to come into the office at least once a month for unstructured face time.

“It’s like what happened when banks introduced ATMs,” the CEO said. “Once people didn’t know Alice behind the counter or any of the lending agents behind those glass walls…there was no familiarity, no trust.” The CEO and Hallowell conclude that for a business to do well, you can’t have tech, without contact—they have to work together. [23]

Mobile Workers: Social Beings

As a parallel line of thought, the authors of Distributed Work note that communication is more than an exchange of data. Information exchange is indeed a key goal of communication, but by focusing exclusively on information, “we overlook the social processes that scaffold information exchange,” as well as the context that frames it. Conducting interviews with people collaborating across organizational boundaries in 12 companies, workers talked about “the importance of shared bodily activities in facilitating social bonding and showing commitment: touching, eating and drinking together, engaging in mutually meaningful experiences in a common physical space, and ‘showing up’ in person.” [24]

After all, what is more engaging? Watching a lecture on-screen or attending a lecture surrounded by people who respond to the speaker with laughter or comments? Perhaps making eye contact with the speaker? How does the physical proximity of the speaker affect the presentation? And how does talking with others over coffee afterwards enrich the experience and perhaps add something to the ideas presented?

Socializing is important as a foundation for collaboration, making a strong case for the office as a site of interaction. Not to be dismissed as inconsequential chats in the hall, socializing creates common bonds and a sense of collective identity and collegiality. In the office, people talk, laugh, listen, show, celebrate, mentor and establish the trust necessary for productive discussions, cocreating and sharing knowledge in order to reach a goal.


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Phonebooths and Mailboxes is a discussion about new technologies. Consider how quickly the cell phone replaced the pager, how quickly the fax machine was replaced by email. Mobile technology now signals one of the biggest transformations within the modern office.

Shifts in work-styles have been, and will continue to be, so monumental that we had to ask the question: Is the office going the way of the phonebooth and the mailbox.

Ultimately, the goal of Phonebooths and Mailboxes is to help organizations create an engaging and adaptable workplace, one that fosters a lively, collegial culture, with a greater level of innovation. Perhaps ideally, a place where people forget they are “at work” and experience a rewarding, creative, intellectual and social life.

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