Intentionality Trumps Proximity

Studies pinpoint the need for clarity in the muddy world of work.

Hey there, all you curators of collaborative chemistry!


  • Workplace Research

    The Question: Does working together in the office make a difference?

    Answer: Sometimes. Michael Arena shares research showing when proximity matters, but cautions that going into the office can also hurt more than it helps.

  • NR4W Experiment Results

    Strong intentionality means this meeting experiment yields consistent results – depending on what we consider "results."

  • Practical Implications

    Teams must find easy ways to recognize when their intentionality is weak and quickly correct course.

* Bottom Line Up Front

Research: Proximity matters, but intentionality trumps proximity.

intentional ~ deliberate ~ conscious ~ designed ~ thoughtful ~ purposeful

If you participated in the NR4W experiment, you answered questions designed and tested by Michael Arena. (If you haven't, there's one coming up. Hop in here!)

We first met Mr. Arena during this year's kickoff symposium. He shared research showing how the pandemic lockdowns impacted corporate innovation.

Michael studies human networks, and how the way we interact within and across our teams impacts performance. Much to his surprise, Michael discovered that sending everyone to work from home correlated with a dramatic increase in productivity.

Initially, that is.

For many teams, that happenstantial boost (which was NOT designed, not deliberate, and very seriously unintentional) faded away. Once they completed the focused priorities at the top of their to-do lists, productivity plummeted.

In-office companies leaned on key people, not systems, to connect ideas between teams. Work that required teams to focus on the ideas they already had in the queue translated easily to the virtual world, but the ephemeral bridges between groups built by these people disappeared.

You can see Michael's fascinating presentation here:

Michael pointed out that some people are naturally inclined to act as "bridgers" between groups, while others focus on developing ideas with their core team. We were curious to see whether these inclinations would make a noticeable impact on how people interact in our condensed 60-minute experiment.

That data has yet to be analyzed. If you're curious too, make sure to join us when we share results next January.

I reconnected with Michael to discuss our progress. While we don't have the final analysis, we're seeing lots of interesting variations in behavior. More importantly, one result is 100% consistent (so far).

Every small team has a draft to share by the end of the meeting. 

In-person, hybrid, or fully virtual: every group succeeds. No one says they ran out of time or got confused by the question. No one says the technology prevented them from completing the task. Every single team has an idea to share, and most have so much to share that we have to cut off their enthusiasm.

Michael wasn't at all surprised.

It turns out that proximity matters, but intentionality trumps proximity. There are things that we can do virtually now that we never dreamed of before. There are some things where getting back together face-to-face matters, but if we just snap back to the way things were before, we only slightly increase the odds of serendipity.

Frankly, we weren't that good at this stuff pre-pandemic so going back to the way it was doesn't make any sense with everything that we've learned."

Michael Arena, in a presentation for Method

Check out Michael's recent presentation for Method where he reveals exactly when proximity helps, and when it can slow innovation down.

The numbers don’t lie. Michael calls policies like mandating two days per week in the office “playing the social lottery.” The data suggests that, without a more intentional plan for connecting people across the network, these policies gain a four percent increase in serendipity at the expense of a 20 percent hit to productivity.

The process we use in the experiment is VERY intentional, and that intentionality means we always get a result. 

Numerous studies highlight the importance of intentionality. Gartner, for example, found that intentional collaboration (as opposed to proximity-based nonsense rules like mandating two days in the office) creates a 2x lift in productivity and provides big boosts to employee wellbeing.

NR4W Experiment Results:
Designed to produce a reliable WORK product.

Michael studies organizational network patterns at a high level. The current NR4W experiment focuses on how location, technology, and individual factors impact performance in a meeting.

These experimental meetings consistently yield the intended work product.

Based on Michael's insights, this is unsurprising. Everything about the experiment was tested in advance, scripted, and controlled down to the minute. You can't get more intentionality than that.

Standard productivity measures focus on work product, so from that perspective, the methods we're using win big time.

Hold the applause—let's first examine the other outcomes.

The way people feel after participating in these meetings is NOT consistent.

I know this because several people have shared their feelings afterward. Here are just a few of the reactions I've heard from folks.

"I LOVED 😻 that experiment!! That was SO. MUCH. FUN! After I left, we drove to the beach, and I couldn't stop talking about it the whole trip out there. I could do that every day!"

That was a 3-hour drive. We'd like to apologize to this person's spouse.

"I just wish we created a better solution. 😰 Are you sure I can't participate again? I think I could really get it right next time."

Oh no! Please don't let your saboteur drive your bus. It's an anonymous experiment, not a test.

"It wasn't nearly as painful as child birth. 🤮 But you still owe me."

Thank you, and noted. I am at your service. Maybe can we settle this with pie?

When you watch the experiment recordings, these people appear to be having similar experiences.

Their feedback says otherwise.

The structure of the experiment flattens individual differences. Everyone can "succeed" in the assigned task regardless of their personality type or preferences.

But not everyone likes it. I know that some of these people will never again volunteer for an experiment like this one.

The NR4W experiment is an extreme example of how clear intentionality attracts some people and repels others.

We’re eager to see if a detailed analysis yields insights that make it easier to build intentional workplaces where everyone thrives.

Implications: Develop Intentional Adaptability

Michael's research on organizational networks shows that teams need to be intentional about when and where to work based on the phase of work they're in.

  • Work where you can connect with people outside of your core team when you need to DISCOVER new ideas or DIFFUSE your results throughout the network.

  • Work where you can protect your focus when you need to DEVELOP an idea into a usable state and DELIVER the final product.

This year’s NR4W experiment operates at a far more granular level. We’re building on decades of workplace and meeting science, all of which reinforces the need for intentionality.

Again, no surprise. Teams perform best when their approach to work is:
intentional ~ deliberate ~ conscious ~ designed ~ thoughtful ~ purposeful

Intentionality has never been easy, though, and today's highly dynamic workplace increases that challenge.

This implies the need for a more adaptable kind of intentionality and new "rules" about how we get intentional on the fly.

We're still experimenting and developing our thoughts on this one. For now, here's what seems true:

  • Senior leaders: Prioritize mission over minutiae, and embrace radical prioritization to cut a path through the mud. Teams need more intentionality around what they should be doing and what they should STOP doing.
    Anecdotally, all my clients are reporting extreme overwhelm. They're not unique. This is a call to action for all the executives out there.

  • Directors, Managers, and Team Leaders: Focus on clarifying what the priorities mean for the people you serve, assisting teams as they set intentions for how they'll work, and then clear the barriers. Sometimes those barriers are a lack of access to other parts of the organization, and sometimes people need you to run interference so they can focus. Be ready to adapt your approach as the work evolves.

  • Everyone: Know why you're doing what you're doing. Get comfortable asking when priorities aren't clear, and speaking up when old organizational habits require you to spend time on things that no longer have value. The speed of business no longer allows us to waste time on nonsense.

It's easiest to discuss and clarify intentionality during meetings.

Next time, we'll share a simple technique you can use in your meetings to see whether your group is working with intentionality, and if not, to get some.

With the very best of intentions,
Elise & Dave

Thank you to Axelle Vanquaillie from Drawify for today’s sketch of Michael Arena’s talk on Innovating Through Networks.

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