The power of presence has no simple explanation. It might be a manifestation of the “mere-exposure effect”: We tend to gravitate toward what’s familiar; we like people whose faces we see, even just in passing. Or maybe it’s the specific geometry of such encounters. The cost of getting someone’s attention at the coffee machine is low—you know they’re available, because they’re getting coffee—and if, mid-conversation, you see that the other person has no idea what you’re talking about, you automatically adjust.
Whatever the mechanisms at play, they were successfully distilled into what Judith Olson, a distance-work expert at UC Irvine, calls “radical collocation.” In the late 1990s, Ford Motor let Olson put six teams of six to eight employees into experimental war rooms arranged to maximize team members’ peripheral awareness of what the others were up to. The results were striking: The teams completed their software-development projects in about a third of the time it usually took Ford engineers to complete similar projects. That extreme model is hard to replicate, Olson cautions. It requires everyone to be working on a single project at the same time, which organizational life rarely allows.
But IBM has clearly absorbed some of these lessons in planning its new workspaces, which many of its approximately 5,000 no-longer-remote workers will inhabit. “It used to be we’d create a shared understanding by sending documents back and forth. It takes forever. They could be hundreds of pages long,” says Rob Purdie, who trains fellow IBMers in Agile, an approach to software development that the company has adopted and is applying to other business functions, like marketing. “Now we ask: ‘How do we use our physical space to get on and stay on the same page?’ ”
The answer, of course, depends on the nature of the project at hand. But it usually involves a central table, a team of no more than nine people, an outer rim of whiteboards, and an insistence on lightweight forms of communication. If something must be written down, a Post‑it Note is ideal. It can be stuck on a whiteboard and arranged to form a “BVC”—big, visual chart—that lets everyone see the team’s present situation, much like the 727’s instrument panels. Communication is both minimized and maximized.
Talking with Purdie, I began to wonder whether the company was calling its employees back to an old way of working or to a new one—one that didn’t exist in 1979, when business moved at a more stately pace. In those days, IBM could decide what to build, plan how to build it, and count on its customers to accept what it finally built at the end of a months-long process. Today, in the age of the never-ending software update, business is more like a series of emergencies that need to be approached like an airplane’s fuel leak. You diagnose a problem, deliver a quick-and-dirty solution, get feedback, course-correct, and repeat, always with an eye on the changing weather outside.
I asked Purdie whether IBM’s new approach could be accomplished at a distance, using all the new collaborative technology out there. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, it can. But the research says those teams won’t be as productive. You won’t fly.”