WFH? RTO? Remembering the Allen Curve and Why It Matters Now

Rita McGrath
5 min readDec 14, 2023

A robust scientific finding from decades ago mapped the richness of information flows against how far apart people sat at work. Called the Allen Curve after MIT’s Thomas J. Allen, who discovered it, it shows a precipitous drop in information flows as people were separated at work.

Who really needs to be within 8–10 feet of each other? And who can safely be elsewhere?

For all the passionate conversations about new working arrangements for the knowledge working classes, we seem to have glossed right over one of the most robust findings in communication theory.

It’s called the Allen curve, and reflects the conclusions of a series of studies that MIT’s Thomas J. Allen conducted in the 1970’s, published in his now-famous book Managing the Flow of Technology: Technology Transfer and the Dissemination of Technological Information Within the R&D Organization. What he found is a dramatic dropoff in how much people communicate when they are separated by physical distance at work. As one observer notes, “The Allen curve estimates that we are four times as likely to communicate regularly with someone sitting two meters away from us as with someone twenty meters away and that we almost never communicate with colleagues on separate floors or in separate buildings.”

The implications are as valid today as they were when Allen conducted his studies, despite, or even perhaps because, of the plethora of electronic and other forms of communication we currently have at our disposal. Indeed, a recent study by researchers from the Federal Reserve, the University of Virginia and Harvard University, called “The Power of Proximity” suggests that the Allen Curve is alive and well and very much with us, despite all the tech.

As they point out, “When offices were open, engineers working in the same building as all their teammates received 22 percent more online feedback than engineers with distant teammates. After offices closed for COVID-19, this advantage largely disappears. Yet sitting together reduces engineers’ programming output, particularly for senior engineers. The tradeoffs from proximity are more acute for women, who both do more mentoring and receive more mentorship when near…

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Rita McGrath

Columbia Business School Professor. Thinkers50 top 10 & #1 in strategy. Bestselling author of The End of Competitive Advantage & Seeing Around Corners.