I Work Next To You. We Should Talk Sometime.

What do you think, Fred?  Fred?? Fred??

Oh, Fred’s wearing headphones and can’t hear me. This scenario, it seems, is increasingly common in the workplace today. Writing recently for Harvard Business Review, former entertainment executive Anne Kreamer says that today’s brand of technology in the workplace, particularly things like G-chat or headphones or Skype, is connecting us plenty—just not to our colleagues.

Kreamer notes that she consulted a dozen people under 35 and found that most of them wear headphones at work and that nearly all of them have a G-chat window open. “The majority of these young workers said that they felt far more connected moment to moment with people outside their workplaces than with any co-workers,” she writes. The problem, according to Kreamer, is that they miss out on crucial exchanges, become less loyal to the company and one another, and innovate less. As studies on innovation show, physical proximity matters.

Peter Drucker didn’t have to contend with G-chat, but he already saw that creating a productive workplace requires sufficient human contact. For one thing, it’s the reason many people go to work at all. “Work is for most people the one bond outside of their own family—and often more important than the family,” Drucker observed in People and Performance. “The work place becomes their community, their social club, their escape from loneliness.”

Image source: 3dSolutions

More important, such contact influences productivity, and creating satisfying informal work arrangements among co-workers is especially important for good output. Research conducted by General Motors during the 1940s, for example found that “‘good fellowship’ or ‘good relations with fellow workers’ showed as the leading causes of job satisfaction,” Drucker recalled.

But even back then, Drucker added, technology was already intruding on these important connections. “The member’s need for integration with the group, for this relationship to the community of his fellows, is not at present sufficiently satisfied,” Drucker wrote in his 1950 book The New Society. In fact, “mass-production technology tends to isolate man from man.”

Are you seeing more headphones and the like in your office? Is it good or bad for business?