Illustration: Graham Roumieu

In one of her first acts as CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer made a visionary decision: She ended the company’s extensive “work from home” policies and required employees to show up at the office.

“To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side by side,” she wrote in an instantly leaked memo. “We need to be one Yahoo, and that starts with physically being together.”

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The reception of the Mayer Doctrine was so electric she might as well have nailed it to the door of Harvard Business School. Squishy notions about the importance of physical proximity had been circulating for some time, but here, finally, was a founding document of the faith.

The idea takes different guises: Steve Jobs famously designed the Pixar offices to stimulate “unplanned collaborations,” while Google strives to make sure no one works more than “150 feet from food” so that snacking colleagues will swap ideas casually. Workspace designers now talk about fostering “collisions” and “serendipity” in high-traffic areas to encourage spontaneous interaction.

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Research is starting to back up the feel-good Silicon Valley vibe. A recent MIT study of a pharmaceutical company tracked a sales team of 50 people using badges to monitor their location in the office. Sales reps who had more interactions—that is, they talked to more people throughout the building—had higher sales figures.

“All-electronic communication doesn’t foster the same sense of belonging that coming together in physical spaces does,” says Kylie Roth, director of workplace research and strategy at St. Louis–based office furniture maker Knoll. Business innovations that have their origins in elevator chit-chat or offhand remarks are hard to observe but all around us, the dark matter of the universe of work.

This article is from the Business B.S. Special Report in the March 2015 issue of Canadian BusinessSubscribe now!

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