A while back I was having lunch with a friend who is one of the most dynamic people I’ve ever met. A successful businesswoman, she regularly commutes between the five countries in which she run operations, while at the same time somehow manages to be a doting single mother to her young child.
Despite her comings and goings, we’re able to stay in touch through social media and, because she is something of a power user of Facebook and Skype, we’re able to keep up with what’s going on in each others lives. So I was quite surprised when she told me that she doesn’t allow her employees to use social media in the office.
When I asked her why, she said that she didn’t want her people gossiping at work because it would distract them. When I pointed out that her use of social media didn’t seem to hurt her productivity, she didn’t make the connection. Yet the truth is that gossip can be an incredibly effective use of time and is probably what made my friend so successful in the first place.
The Gift Of Gab
Hard nosed managers like to be data-driven, so they track everything they can, from revenues and sales calls to productivity per employee. But one thing that’s difficult to track is how workers communicate with each other. So Sandy Pentland of the MIT Media Lab set out to do just that. He invented a sociometer device that tracks human interactions in real work environments.
In his book, Social Physics, Pentland explains his research into how people really get things done and what he found was surprising. The most important predictor of success in a group, as it turns out, is the amount — not the content — of social interaction. It doesn’t matter if they are discussing technical details or just idle chit chat, more talk drives productivity.
My friend had already recognized this in her own career. Her outgoing nature led to valuable business relationships that helped her succeed. But as Pentland explained in an article published in Harvard Business Review, he found that the same type of interaction is just as important in low-level jobs.
After equipping teams in a call center with sociometric badges, he found that interaction and engagement outside formal meetings accounted for one third of the variation of dollar productivity between groups. Pentland suggested that instead of sending people to coffee breaks individually, they send whole teams together as a group.
That simple change resulted in a $15 million increase in productivity and it cost nothing to implement. On other projects, seemingly innocuous changes like increasing the size of lunch tables, to encourage interaction among more people, also proved effective. Chit chat, it turns out, is not only permissible, but profitable.
Building Diverse Networks
It shouldn’t be all that surprising that increasing communication within teams can help drive productivity. Most of us have experienced what it is like to work in a group where everyone asks about each other’s family, life outside the office and so on. But as it turns out, building ties outside the team can be just as important.
In 2005, a team of researchers decided to study why some Broadway plays become hits and others flop. They looked at all the usual factors, such as production budget, marketing budget and the track record of the director, but what they found was that what was most important was the informal networks of relationships among the cast and crew.
If no one had ever worked together before, both financial and creative results tended to be poor. However, if the networks among the cast and crew became too dense, performance also suffered. It was the teams that had elements of both — strong ties and new blood — that had the greatest success.
The same effect has been found elsewhere. In studies of star engineers at Bell Labs, the German automotive industry and currency traders, it has been shown that tightly clustered groups, combined with long range “weak ties” that allow information to flow freely among disparate clusters, results in better innovation.
The same principle applies to regions of as a whole, In Regional Advantage, AnnaLee Saxenian’s comparative study of Silicon Valley and Route 128 outside Boston, she found that it was the social life in northern California, along with the ability to job-hop and other things, that made the region more the region more innovative.
Identifying The Missing Link
The evidence is clear, but still flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Traditionally, we think of productivity as being driven by cold, hard efficiency. Keeping our noses to the grindstone, it would seem, should help us to avoid distractions and get more done. Yet it seems that the opposite is true. By taking time out to gab with others, we can actually become more productive.
As it turns out, researchers at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of management may have figured out why. In a study analyzing 17.9 million scientific papers they found that the most highly cited work tended to be mostly rooted within a traditional field, with just a smidgen of insight taken from some unconventional place.
This begins to make sense when you consider that, as Thomas Kuhn explained in the The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, we advance in specific fields by creating paradigms, which sometimes can make it very difficult to solve a problem within the domain in which it arose, but may be fairly easily resolved within the paradigm of an adjacent domain.
It stands to reason that the same principle holds true in more mundane work. We tend to fall into a regular way of doing things. As we hone our routines, they become second nature and efficiency increases. Yet at some point, we need to venture outside our immediate context to find new possibilities and break up those old routines to bring performance to a new level.
The Efficiency Paradox
Today, much of management thinking is still rooted in Frederick Winslow Taylor’s ideas about scientific management. We believe that standardizing routines and optimizing processes is the best way to become more productive. In this view, workers are like cogs in a machine and supposed to perform a specific function to the desired technical specification.
However, so much of what we do today requires interoperability between teams, suppliers and customers. So what may seem like idle chit chat often serves as an exploration into the context of others who operate within our professional ecosystem. Before we know it, we’ve come across that smidgen of information that takes us in a new direction.
This becomes even more true in disruptive environments. When things are in a state of flux, with events happening at blinding speed and seemingly going off in a million directions, it becomes even more important to build diverse networks and access them frequently. That requires us to get out and gab a bit.
That’s why the drive to efficiency often results in a paradox. The more we try to optimize, the less we are able to identify improvements, react to changes and discover new possibilities. So if you want to achieve more, you might want to think about getting up from your computer screen, having a coffee and engaging in some juicy gossip. You never know where it might lead.
An earlier version of this article first appeared in Inc.com