Feel like something's missing from your creative life? This MIT study identifies a key element we've lost in recent years.
Ever struck up a conversation with someone you’ve just met and been surprised by the ideas they sparked? Whether it’s a new colleague at a conference, a coworker from another team you see on the train, or a friend of a friend at a party who shares your passion for an obscure podcast, serendipitous encounters can jolt you out of your routine and into new points of view.
But in the past few years, we haven’t had much opportunity for colliding with unexpected perspectives. The scientific term for what we’ve lost is weak ties—relationships with people outside your primary circle of influence. Despite the name, weak ties are extremely valuable because they expose us to new approaches to solving problems.
You don’t have to work in an office to see the influence of weak ties. Creators, entrepreneurs, and small business owners benefit from clients who provide feedback that results in a pivot, customers that surface an issue that turns into a new feature, or fans who spark conversations with comments on social media. In the best case scenarios, weak ties can become strong ties that turn into ongoing connections.
They’re also directly connected with the spread of ideas and innovation, says Paolo Santi, a research scientist at MIT’s Senseable City Lab. In a recent MIT study co-led by Daniel Carmody and Martina Mazzarello, Santi and other researchers looked at the pandemic’s effect on weak ties and the role of shared physical spaces in how people communicate.
The team was able to observe how the shift to virtual collaboration during the pandemic narrowed opportunities to encounter perspectives from beyond a person’s daily realm. In fact, within the first year and a half, their study showed that the lockdown led to the loss of over 5,000 weak ties—a 38% decrease.
But identifying this reduction was just the start. Much like organizations that have already embraced hybrid or Virtual First work, the researchers wanted to know: What's the “minimum amount” of in-person work required to foster innovation and creative collaboration? Or, put another way, just how much exposure to strangers do we need to do our best work?
What happens when you remove one variable?
One of the oldest theories in the study of social networks is that physical proximity between two people should increase the likelihood of interacting and forming a connection.
“Physical spaces have a unique characteristic that is not found online: inevitability,” says Carlo Ratti, Professor of Urban Technologies at MIT and Planning Director of the school’s Senseable City Lab, who also worked on the study. “Our inability to avoid certain communities also exposes us to a diverse set of people and ideas on a regular basis.”
Santi says the idea to scope the dynamics of collaboration actually began long before the pandemic forced the worldwide adoption of remote work. They started by looking at the role physical space plays in the production of collaborative work—specifically, papers and patents created by teams at MIT.
Then, in late 2019, they began collecting data on the university’s email network to get a better sense of how proximity—or lack thereof—can affect these interactions. When the pandemic hit, there was suddenly a unique opportunity to study and quantify the formation of weak ties made before, during, and after lockdowns, once the campus began to reopen in autumn 2021.
“The MIT campus lockdown ended up being the social sciences experiment that normally you can never do—removing one variable [physical space] and seeing what happens,” says Ratti.
Despite nearly 50 years of research, the way weak ties form is still somewhat mysterious because observing how people build connections takes so much time. “You can't stand there and watch somebody as they go through their entire life over the course of years, and see how they interact,” says John Meluso, VERSO Postdoctoral Fellow at the Vermont Complex Systems Center, who contributed an expert commentary on the study from a social science perspective.
In search of “virtual serendipity”
If you’ve spent a lot of time on Zoom calls with cross-functional coworkers, you might wonder why those virtual interactions don’t create the weak ties that lead to unexpected collaborations.
According to Ratti, the heavily scripted nature of Zoom meetings are part of the problem. “Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, who collaborated on our research, singles out casual conversations as a crucial element in the creation of weak ties,” he says. “In the early days of the pandemic, we all tried to schedule ‘coffee gatherings’ on Zoom, but then that trend stopped.”
“Physical spaces have a unique characteristic that is not found online: inevitability.” —Carlo Ratti
Ratti suspects there are several reasons for that. “Physical space allows us to better negotiate privacy, [and] infer social relations from proximity,” he says. “And let’s not forget that the mere presence of tea—or spritz—is a powerful congregating force!”
Meluso says another reason weak ties tend to form through physical proximity is serendipity.
“You have a higher probability of running into someone spontaneously,” he says. “It's very difficult to recreate those processes virtually. The barrier to entry to casual conversations is lower in person than it is in virtual spaces where it often feels forced and less natural.”
That’s one reason it feels so difficult to brainstorm on video calls—along with the fact that we have to devote so much visual focus to the computer screen.
Meluso suggests there are ways technology could remove some of those barriers to online serendipity. For example, providing more ways to customize how we collaborate—the mediums available, notifications, letting people add their pronouns—could help create the kind of informal atmosphere that lends itself to creative collaboration.
“When you build flexibility into your work environments—not just the technologies, [but] things like the activities that we perform, the interactions and symbols we design—all of those can create more opportunities for serendipity in ways that are comfortable for people,” Meluso says. “If you don't build those in, you're creating a rigidity that prevents serendipity.”
Balancing virtual and in-person collaboration
Despite the proliferation of new technology, the value of face-to-face interaction can’t (yet) be replicated by existing virtual collaboration tools. So in the meantime, companies need to figure out just how much in-person time their employees need.
“The MIT campus lockdown ended up being the social sciences experiment that normally you can never do—removing one variable and seeing what happens.”
Ratti thinks it’s possible future digital tools will be more conducive to creating weak ties, but so far the digital domain seems to be susceptible to the “homophily trap.” It’s a crucial problem to solve because the implications extend beyond the workplace.
“The Internet and the algorithms of social media encourage us to filter out people and ideas that do not align with our own beliefs,” says Ratti. “As a result, we end up within echo chambers with friends and friends-of-friends.”
Ratti believes the lack of weak ties not only contribute to political polarization, they also rob us of spontaneous interactions with inspiring people we’d never meet if we confined ourselves to familiar circles. “The mingling of different communities is exactly what we need to foster innovation at the office and mend our increasingly fractured society,” he says.
In the end, the researchers concluded that the solution to restoring weak ties wasn’t simply returning to the old normal of sitting next to each other in offices for 40 hours a week. Instead, they recommend companies establish policies that encourage serendipitous interactions by combining in-person and remote work to promote cross-functional interactions.
“I'm really interested in creating work experiences that are valuable to everyone that also benefit the organizations that they're working for,” says Meluso. “Can we design new forms of interacting with one another in virtual or hybrid forms that allow everybody to work in ways that are comfortable and productive for them at the same time?”