Does physical proximity build relationships?

Having recently finished a short-term secondment at a real estate services company, I interviewed for another 3 month role in a tech company at its consumer goods division through the same recruiter. Having previously negotiated to work remotely half the time, I thought that I might be able to reach the same arrangement, especially since the general counsel, or GC, at the second company was touted as someone fairly progressive and process-oriented. To my surprise, the GC preferred someone who could be 100% physically in the office.

I thought it was a fairly unusual request as most secondments which I took on in the first half of the year had been fully remote, with physical meetings reserved for external stakeholders or internal cohesion events. Suspecting that perhaps I was the one who was out of touch, I did an informal survey amongst the GCs and legal managers I knew on whether they preferred to have their team back in the office, and what they thought the advantages of doing so were. One main reason given was that physical proximity helps to build relationships.

Some managers felt that by having their team in the office, people would have more opportunities to interact and become comfortable with each other. Besides learning about things that weren’t in their individual job scopes, they might be able to work with each other on their own initiative (for example, business units might come to legal teams earlier to resolve a problem before it escalated). Basically, being in the same office creates the opportunity for spontaneous connection and collaboration.

I attend physical networking meetings regularly, and in my experience, physical proximity is not enough for connection. The degree of interaction still largely depends on the individual inclination to connect, which in the workplace could be affected by how people are organised (not just physical layouts, but who they have to interact with) and carry out their work. Physical proximity has to be part of a designed system that encourages people to share knowledge and experience in order to create a substantive network effect, such as publicising common interests and specific requests.

Further, there are many systems available today that allow people to work with and interact with each other in real time, which greatly eliminates the need for physical proximity. On the other hand, remote interaction does have its limitations – for example, not being able to see the other party’s body language, which can offer valuable insights in situations such as mediation. Ultimately it boils down to whether the team members desire the same level of interaction, and consciously build their workplace relationships regardless of the platform used.

Even if physical proximity is necessary, it is not sufficient for relationship building. Besides individual inclination, there needs to be a system to bridge people. Being in the same space does provide opportunity for connection and collaboration, but having a structure and incentives to promote active networking is likely to have a greater impact.