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Copiers and water coolers: the ecology of informal interactions

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Sociologists and organization theorists have long recognized the importance of informal interactions in organizations. However, while we know a great deal about the consequences for individuals, groups, and organizations of different patterns of informal interaction and we know a fair amount as well about with whom a given individual is more likely to interact informally, very little has been written about how the environment of particular physical spaces either facilitates or impedes informal interactions. That is, we know much about the what, why, how, and who of informal interactions. This paper sketches a grounded theory of where informal interactions are most likely to occur. Building on an ethnographic study of several white-collar office environments, the authors develop a model of the ecology of informal interactions. That is, they describe the pattern of characteristics that a particular environment must offer for informal interactions to flourish. This pattern contains three important elements: privacy, legitimacy, and spontaneity. The elements are not independent, they partially oppositional, and the authors argue that the co-presence of all three is characteristic of the space is often referred to figuratively as "around the water cooler."

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