How remote work is withering our social networks

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Yet office buildings in 10 major U.S. cities remain at around 47.5% occupancy, according to the Kastle Back to Work Barometer. Is this the “new normal”? If so, how will long-term remote work affect productivity and innovation? So far, there has been no shortage of discourse – but the discourse has lacked data.

It’s starting to change. Our MIT lab, together with colleagues from Texas A&M University, the Technical University of Denmark, and the University of Oxford, has published a study based on empirical data with potentially game-changing implications. At the end of 2019, we started collecting data on the MIT email network (many studies show that email communications are a good proxy for studying human networks). Then came the pandemic. Amid all its devastation to human lives, the crisis accidentally turned out to be a natural experiment that removed a social network variable we were monitoring: physical space.

What happened? To understand the results, we had to look back. In 1973, the sociologist Marc Granovetter describes how functioning societies are underpinned not only by “strong ties” (close relationships) but also by “weak ties” (casual acquaintances). While strong ties tend to form dense, overlapping networks—our close friends are often also friends with each other—weak ties connect us to a larger, more diverse group of people. By connecting different social circles, weak ties are more likely to connect us to new ideas and perspectives, challenge preconceptions, and foster innovation and its spread.

Our data showed that weak ties evaporated at MIT on March 23, 2020 – the day the campus went into lockdown due to the pandemic – with a sudden drop of 38%. Over the next 18 months, this resulted in a cumulative loss of more than 5,100 new weak links, or about two per person.

Likewise, ego networks – an individual’s unique network of personal connections – have become more stagnant, with social contacts becoming more similar week after week. In the long term, this trend could further polarize society, as people retreat into echo chambers that only reinforce and entrench, rather than challenge, their views.

Although our results are consistent with other recent results search results, for the first time, we were able to examine the effect of the gradual return to campus in the fall of 2021. We found that proximity helped renew weak ties – colleagues who were close to each other began to make new connections. Our model revealed that the complexity of human interactions can be captured in a surprisingly accurate mathematical formula, inversely proportional to distance.

With this data in hand, we can move away from polarizing controversies and dissect the future of remote work with an evidence-based approach. It is not necessary to have a full return to the office; remote work has undeniable advantages, especially flexibility. However, companies and organizations need to develop a new work regime, a methodology that emphasizes the best that physical space can do for us.

Companies could take steps to ensure that the time people spend in the office is conducive to weak ties. This could involve, for example, transforming traditional floor plans, designed to facilitate the execution of individual tasks, into more open and dynamic spaces that promote the so-called cafeteria effect. (Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, who collaborated on the research, emphasizes the importance informal conversations around the water cooler. More radical revamps could follow, with architects finding ways to generate chance encounters, for example through choreographed and “event” locations.

Physical space has a unique characteristic not found online: inevitability. It constantly exposes us to a diverse set of people and ideas. This quality is exactly what we need it for: so that we can maintain our professional lives and integrate our increasingly divided society.

Carlo Ratti directs the MIT Senseable City Lab and the design and innovation office Carlo Ratti Associati.

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