How remote work withers our social networks
Physical space has a unique characteristic that is not found online
Since the start of the Covid pandemic more than 2.5 years ago, there have been endless debates about working remotely. At first Zoom and Teams software inspired optimistic futurists to announce that the office was now irrelevant. Then, a militant return-to-the-office demand rose to defy them. The most recent prominent boast came from Tesla founder Elon Musk who told employees: "Anyone who wishes to do remote work must be in the office for a minimum, and I mean minimum of 40 hours per week or depart Tesla."
Yet office buildings in 10 large cities across the United States remain at about 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.
This is beginning to change. Our lab at MIT, together with colleagues at Texas A&M University, Technical University of Denmark and the University of Oxford, has published a study based on empirical data with potentially ground-breaking implications. At the end of 2019, we began collecting data on MIT's 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 one variable from the social network we were monitoring: physical space.
What happened? To understand the results, we had to look back. In 1973, sociologist Mark Granovetter described how functioning societies are underpinned not only by "strong ties" (close relationships) but also by "weak ties" (casual acquaintances). Whereas strong ties tend to form dense, overlapping networks -- our close friends are often also friends with one another -- weak ties connect us to a larger and more diverse group of people. By bridging different social circles, weak ties are more likely to connect us with new ideas and perspectives, challenging preconceptions and fostering innovation and its diffusion.
Our data showed that weak ties evaporated at MIT on March 23, 2020 -- the day the campus entered lockdown due to the pandemic -- with a sudden 38% drop. Over the next 18 months, this resulted in a cumulative loss of more than 5,100 new weak ties -- approximately two per person.
Similarly, ego networks -- an individual's unique web of personal connections -- became more stagnant, with social contacts becoming more similar week after week. In the long term, this trend could further polarise society, as people retreat into echo chambers that only reinforce and entrench, rather than challenge, their views.
While our results are consistent with other recent research findings, for the first time we were able to look at the effect of the progressive return to campus during fall last year. We discovered that proximity contributed to renewed weak ties -- colleagues who were close to each other again started forming new connections. Our model revealed that the complexity of human interactions can be captured in a surprisingly precise mathematical formula, inversely proportional to distance.
With this data in hand, we can step away from polarising polemics and dissect the future of remote work with an evidence-based approach. There does not need to be a complete return to the office; remote work has undeniable benefits, not least flexibility. However, businesses and organisations must develop a new work regime, a methodology that emphasises the best of what physical space can do for us.
Businesses could take steps to ensure that the time people do spend in the office is conducive to establishing weak ties. This could involve, for example, transforming traditional floor plans, designed to facilitate individual task execution, into more open, dynamic spaces that encourage the so-called cafeteria effect.
Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, who collaborated on the research, highlights the importance of casual conversations around the water cooler. More radical redesigns may follow, with architects finding ways to generate chance encounters, such as through choreographed, "event-based" places.
Physical space has a unique characteristic that is not found online: inevitability. It constantly exposes us to a diverse set of people and ideas. This quality is exactly why we need it: so that we can sustain our work life -- and integrate our increasingly divided society.
Carlo Ratti directs the MIT Senseable City Lab and the design and innovation office CRA-Carlo Ratti Associati.