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Scientists Found A Simple Way That Kids Make Friends. Can It Work For Adults, Too?

The surprising power of sitting next to someone.

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Think about how you met some of your closest friends, from at school and work. Ever notice how some of them just happened to be seated next to you?

Science has now confirmed: That's no coincidence. It's a thing.

In a new study at Florida Atlantic University, researchers followed 235 students in grades 3 through 5. They found that when students' assigned seats were next to each other, they were much more likely to become friends.

And it wasn't just a one-time thing. When their seating assignments changed, even more friendships followed.

"The students in this study spent most of every day with the same 15 or so classmates," the study authors wrote. "By the middle of the school year, there were no unfamiliar peers. Yet when seat assignments changed, new seatmates were apt to become new friends, consistent with claims that mere exposure may be a necessary condition for friendship but it is not sufficient."

That last part is worth unpacking. Mere exposure may be a necessary condition for friendship but it is not sufficient.

We don't form friendships simply by being around other people.

We form them through sustained interactions with other people.

Now you see how this can be relevant to adults, too.

Across the world right now, workers are participating in a kind of inverse version of the school-seating experiment. Instead of seeing what happens when people are seated next to each other, we're seeing what happens when people never sit next to each other.

What are the results? I'm sure scientists are studying that right now. But here's one interesting early anecdote:

I was talking recently to Nicole Miller, the director of people at a tech company called Buffer. The company had moved to a four-day workweek, which was widely considered a success: Productivity remained the same, and employees had more time to relax or pursue other interests.

But an unexpected problem emerged.

"After about a year of this," Miller told me, "people are feeling very disengaged from one another."

The company was already operating remotely, so this wasn't just an issue about working from home. Instead, it was about a new shift in work styles.

Consider it: How do you eliminate one day of work per week, but still get the same amount of work done? The answer is, you take fewer meetings and spend less time chitchatting with colleagues. "People stopped spending as much time in Slack, and had less of that filler time that kind of allows for teammate bonding and things like that," Miller said.

As a result, people got to know each other less. They didn't become friends simply by working at the same company, just as the children in the study didn't become friends simply by being in the same classroom.

They needed more than that. They needed — whether literally or just metaphorically — to be seated next to each other.

So, what can we do about this?

When something new comes along, we tend to run it through a purity test. We ask: Is this thing perfect? And if it isn't, we tend to think it's terrible and worth throwing away.

That's counterproductive. Nothing is perfect! Everything is going to have some problems. That's why we should ask this much more helpful question: Is our new problem better than our old problem?

Now we're able to evaluate things more realistically. And when we look at our new ways of working — whether that's flexible, fully remote, or even a four-day workweek — I think the answer is yes, our new problem is better than our old problem. We have given people more flexibility in their lives, and structured work around our modern needs and technologies. Now the question is, how can we make it all better?

There is no single answer to that. At Buffer, Miller and her colleagues are exploring ways to bring teams together in small but meaningful ways, without adding too much to their workload. Individual remote workers are joining coworking spaces, where they can develop new relationships and expand their networks. And many, many more experiments and tweaks and evolutions are happening everywhere.

As all this takes place, I think it's helpful to identify our ultimate goals here. It isn't to recreate the shape of work as we knew it. Instead, it is to create fulfilling work and life experiences.

The school seating study gives us a nice data point there: People build friendships when they have sustained interactions with each other.

It doesn't need to be in a seat. It just needs to happen.

That's our challenge, and our opportunity.

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