Fraternizing With Colleagues Boosts Productivity

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I had lunch today with a blogger friend of mine. We met last spring when we both spoke on a panel of workplace reporters arranged by the Publicity Club of New York. She’s one of those people I instantly clicked with, due in part to our apparently parallel lives: we write for a living; we were both about to publish our first books; we covered the same beat; we have small children; and we’re essentially married to the same person.

Anyway, soon after we met she moved to Madison, Wis. I kept up on her life and career success through her blog; and when I launched mine in the fall, she did the same.

Over sushi today we hashed over her publicity plan for the upcoming publication of her book. We talked about our families. We talked about our blogs. I gave her names of journalist friends to whom she could pitch her book; she gave me pages of advice on how to market and improve my blog (I took notes).

During the three months I spent working from home due to an illness, this kind of collegial contact is what I missed most. (It’s also the reason I got so much work done, but I’ll get back to that.) My friend leads a similar lifestyle as a freelance writer, her husband minding the baby as she scoots out to a nearby cafe to write. She says it’s to get away from the kids but I think she likes being around people–even strangers. Me, I was pretty much confined to the house, but I tried to keep up with friends and colleagues over the phone and through e-mail.

I think workers need other workers. I’ve advocated in this space about the virtues of flex time, and I still feel strongly that workers ought to be given more control over where and when we work. But I also believe, now more than ever, that employers should keep some office space, mainly so employees can commune and cocreate and cowork.

Some employers are threatened by employee fraternization. That, at least, was what drove the case decided last week by the U.S. Appeals court. Here, from the L.A. Times:

A three-judge panel found that an anti-fraternization policy of the security-services firm Guardsmark intruded into federal labor law that gives workers the right to organize and to “engage in other concerted activities.”

Aside from the threat of undercover unionization, employers might also worry about the drain on productivity when coworkers fraternize. Sure, you could argue the hour I spent over sushi with my friend was an hour I could have spent at my computer, racing toward the two deadlines I face next week. You could even argue we’re more productive at home, as many recent studies have. You could argue I could have dug up the same advice she gave me in some books or a webinar.

But I’ve always absorbed information better presented live by other people. And I’m not alone. My friend pointed out that my suggestions to her were the same suggestions she makes every day on her job advice columns. “It’s the hardest thing to take your own advice,” she marveled.

In contrast, here’s one thing I sure didn’t miss about the office: these dang fire drills. Ours are announced by a high-pitched buzz and then the building safety director shouting on the speaker system. My smoke alarms at home are pretty loud, but at least I can smash them quiet with a broom handle. Being back in the office forces me to exhibit acceptable fire-safety behavior. Besides, I don’t have a broom.

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