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January 17, 2008

« Prosperity Agenda | Main | The Life and Life of Silicon Valley »

Check out this new paper by Google's Bo Cowgill, Justin Wolfers of Wharton and Eric Zitzewitz at Dartmouth. Here's how Wolfers' describes it over at Freakonomics (h/t: Tim Hartford; Alison Kemper).

The overwhelming importance of “micro-geography” was quite striking, particularly as this is the sort of organization in which Instant Messaging and e-mail (plus blogs and wikis) might have otherwise suggested the death of distance. Certainly this research changed my mind about the importance of open-plan seating. This isn’t a lesson lost on Google either, as cube-mates are kept in close proximity, and Googlers are asked to move desks approximately once every three months. Interestingly, personal relationships persist once these moves have occurred, and people tend to trade in a way correlated with that of their cube-mate from three months ago; although, reassuringly, they do not trade in a way correlated with their future cube-mate. (I say “reassuringly” because this is a useful way of testing whether our results reflect Google seating people with similar opinions near each other, rather than people near each other influencing the opinions of others.)

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Comments

Zoe B

Wolfers went on to say it's a shame economists don't work in cubicles, for all the ideas that never are born of conversations that never took place at the water cooler.

In the industrial office (a la "Dagwood"), if you hang out at the water cooler Mr. Dithers will fire you. But economics is more like mining (as described by Peter Cook, of Beyond the Fringe): "You're given complete freedom to do what you like...provided you get hold of 2 tons of coal every day". So why not find a 'water cooler'? What stands in the way?

Ben Spigel

About a decade ago, a group of cognitive scientists looking at Bell Labs found that all things being equal, the chances of two scientists collaborating was 4 times higher if they had offices in the same hallway, than if there was a turn in the hall between them.

Basically, people are lazy about talking to other people. There's a noticeable drop in communication when you have to turn your neck to see someone.

Ben S (who's excited about this topic, because the affect of microgeographies on communication patterns is his thesis topic)

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