Seeing Is Learning — Why Face Time Between Coworkers Is More Important Than You Think

Many companies assume that telecommuting saves money. But do employees miss out on anything when they’re not working side by side?

In today’s world of instant messages, smartphones and global conference calls, the concept of two colleagues working face-to-face feels almost quaint. But it may be more important than we realize, according to Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard. “There’s a lot of information you can glean from being present,” she says. “There is some fascinating research coming out that shows that we learn from observing others.”

She points to recent brain research on “mirror neurons” as an indicator that people may unknowingly benefit from their co-workers’ physical presence. Mirror neurons were first identified by neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti and colleagues at the University of Parma, Italy, who were doing research on monkeys and monitoring neurons that they thought were connected to performing certain motions. They found that when a monkey grabbed an object, certain neurons in the brain would fire. Then the researchers noticed something else: The same brain neuron would fire when the monkey simply watched somebody else grabbing an object. (Click here to watch a video about mirror neurons.)

“They found that what we do when we are watching [others] is that our neurons start mimicking, firing in the same way other people’s [neurons] are firing,” Rothbard notes. “They think this is the basis for social learning. We learn how to do things by watching other people…. It creates a pathway neurologically for us to follow.”

What, then, are the implications for telecommuters and companies that use them? It could mean that skills don’t get transferred as quickly or completely from one employee to another because colleagues are unable to watch each other work. Or it may make it difficult for people to connect emotionally with distant coworkers, since mirror neurons are also associated with empathy.

As the economy flirts with a double-dip recession and cost-conscious companies hesitate to re-hire, however, the workplace for many Americans has shifted away from crowded offices to a new world of solitary work. From freelancers to telecommuters to laid-off workers making do with temporary gigs, an increasing number of Americans are reporting to work each day from a corner of their home, a space in the garage, a private office or even a table at the local coffee shop.

For more on how to successfully navigate the challenges of working remotely, click here to read a related story from Knowledge@Wharton.

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