Steered Serendipity and Creative Interactions for Remote Workers

The idea of designing office buildings for serendipity has been embraced for decades, especially in established and emerging technology hubs. Architects create designs that encourage employees to move through the space, with the hope of catalyzing impromptu interaction and serendipitous encounters.

The goal is to break down the silos and echo chambers of the old-line office environs in favor of a more vibrant and collaborative workspace. These workspaces are characterized by architectural elements such as expansive atriums, informal gathering spaces, reconfigurable walls, community cafes, and outdoor working patios.

Now, however, many of these gleaming engines of workaday serendipity sit empty. Hollow husks awaiting the return of their former occupants, most of whom were pressed into remote work because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The reality, though, is that many of these people will not return. At least not full time, or in full force. Remote work is here to stay.

Now that a significant percentage of the American workforce has experienced remote work for an extended period, many are balking at the idea of returning to the office full time. Employment background check provider GoodHire surveyed 3,500 US workers to gauge their attitudes about remote work, and how they felt about potentially returning to the office.

Here are a few key findings from the GoodHire survey:

  • 68 percent of workers would choose remote work over in-office work
  • 61 percent would accept a pay cut to keep working remotely
  • 45 percent would either quit their job or start looking for a new job if they were forced to return to the office
  • 74 percent indicated they would require a remote work arrangement to remain at their current job
  • 67 percent believe that employers who do not offer remote work arrangements will have difficulty attracting quality applicants

When Apple CEO Tim Cook recently rolled out his hybrid work policy requiring employees to return to the office at least three days each week, he received some pushback. A survey was circulated on an employee Slack channel, and 90 percent indicated that they would need more flexibility regarding remote work. 36 percent indicated that they might have to resign from their job at Apple if they are not offered a more flexible remote work policy.

Clearly, most employees favor remote work. So why do so many executives seem to resist more expansive remote work policies? A lot of them probably fear losing control, or just naturally resist change. Some executives want their workers to be highly visible and accessible. Some worry about the effect of remote work on the company’s “culture.” There is also another reason frequently cited by managers and executives.

The fear of lost serendipity

Gianni Giacomelli is Chief Innovation officer at Genpact, and Head of Innovation Design at MIT’s Collective Intelligence Design Lab. In a recent LinkedIn article discussing a potential framework for hybrid-remote work, he explains that both strong ties and weak ties are essential connection types within organizations.

Strong ties, Giacomelli explains, are formed between people who are connected by their everyday functional work tasks. Weak ties, on the other hand, are formed through serendipitous encounters that often cross departmental barriers. Weak ties are crucial for innovation and culture development. While strong ties are resilient to shocks such as sudden location changes, these events may shrink weak ties. This potential erosion of innovation and culture, says Giacomelli, is what many CEOs fear most about remote work.

Art Markman, a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas, acknowledges the serendipitous potential of interpersonal weak ties in the office. “The physical workplace enables moments of serendipity that can move projects along,” explains Markman. “You might bump into a colleague while thinking about a problem and ask a question that leads to a new and surprising solution. Maybe you grab a cup of coffee with a few coworkers and that leads to a new product or service.”

Some execs are outwardly hostile to the idea of sustained remote work. Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon says he is a “big believer in personal connectivity,” and that for innovative, collaborative businesses, remote work is “not ideal” and “not a new normal.” Solomon went as far as calling remote work “an aberration that we’re going to correct as quickly as possible.”

Others, however, aren’t buying the idea that face-to-face interaction is the only path to creativity, collaboration, innovation, or serendipity.

A weak case for weak ties?

Since weak ties often connect otherwise disparate groups and individuals, they are thought to efficiently drive information diffusion across networks. The standard approach to this type of diffusion follows an epidemiological model. People are infected with novel ideas and become contagious. If we can expose other people to these carriers, they too will become infected with innovative ideas.[1]

However, while a weak tie may indicate a relationship between two people, it doesn’t guarantee the transfer of ideas and information between them. Do the people encounter each other when the idea is relevant? Are they together long enough for the information to come up? Does the source think the other person will find the information useful or interesting? Is the source willing to share the information? The presence of weak ties on a network is not enough to ensure diffusion. There must be a valid opportunity to share the information, and there must be a willingness to share it at any particular time.[2]

Ethan Bernstein is an associate professor of leadership and organizational behavior at Harvard Business School. As related to New York Times correspondent Claire Caine Miller, Bernstein had this to say about the perceived effectiveness of in-office serendipitous encounters:

“There’s credibility behind the argument that if you put people in spaces where they are likely to collide with one another, they are likely to have a conversation. But is that conversation likely to be helpful for innovation, creativity, useful at all for what an organization hopes people would talk about? There, there is almost no data whatsoever. All of this suggests to me that the idea of random serendipity being productive is more fairy tale than reality.”

It’s not that weak ties aren’t important. They are. It’s just that throwing people together and hoping creativity and innovation will ensue might not produce the desired result.

Who says serendipitous encounters have to be physical?

Joseph Woodbury, CEO of online storage marketplace Neighbor, is among those who believe hybrid offices won’t work. “We need less digital interaction and more human interaction. That’s what we’re building by embracing an in-office culture,” says Woodbury. “All of the most ambitious projects in human history were driven by a team working in close proximity to build and collaborate towards an audacious goal.”

Maybe. But so what? Maybe that’s because there was no other practical way for people to collaborate until now. Until the late 19th century, all ambitious projects in human history were accomplished without electricity. Until the middle of the 20th century, all ambitious projects in human history were accomplished without the aid of digital computers. Are we rushing to go back to those conditions? Teams worked in close proximity in the past because they had to.

Besides, it’s not like modern offices are nonstop serendipity factories. Sometimes people actually focus on their work. They aren’t always just standing around the water cooler, brilliantly collaborating and belching innovation.

One study of the citation patterns of mathematicians found that distance was a statistically insignificant barrier to citation probability. Researchers were more likely to cite people they know or have a prior professional relationship with regardless of location. Prior coauthorship, for example, might be more likely to result in a citation than current colocation. Proximity does increase the face-to-face interaction that allows ties to form, but information flow can overcome geographic barriers. Ties created at short distances can be fairly easily maintained at longer distances.[3]

Felix Kabo, a research scientist at the University of Michigan, examines how spatial and social contexts shape outcomes in collaboration and team science, innovation, and entrepreneurship. He finds that colocation is most helpful in the early stages of collaboration. “When people have a prior relationship,” says Kabo, “it’s much easier to sustain that virtually.”

“I believe that the shift to remote work actually has the potential to improve group creativity and ideation, despite diminished in-person communication,” says Leigh Thompson, a management professor at Northwestern University. “Creativity is influenced by factors under one’s control. You don’t need to collaborate in person to embrace a proactive mindset about creativity — you can do that independently, from anywhere.”

Most research supports the value of propinquity for establishing collaborative ties. Increasingly, though, researchers are finding that these ties can be effectively nurtured from a distance. And why can’t serendipitous new connections be made remotely?

The pandemic has forced many companies to embrace remote work on a broad scale for the first time. Many assumptions about how working remotely would affect collaboration, communication, creativity, innovation, and productivity have been challenged. As a result, many executives are adjusting their views of remote and hybrid work arrangements. After all, there has never been so much available data.

Bethany Cianciolo and Kathryn Vasel recently asked 15 CEOs to share some things they learned about remote work during the pandemic, and how these lessons might shape the future of work. Here are a few takeaways:

  • Dropbox CEO Drew Houston sees the 40-hour in-office workweek – which he describes as “an artifact of factory work” – becoming a thing of the past. By October of last year, Dropbox had announced they were becoming a “virtual first” company. “The workplace will now be wherever work happens,” says Houston.
  • According to CEO Ryan Roslanksy, LinkedIn has “moved away from a one-size-fits-all policy and will let individual teams decide the working model that bests suites their needs. Embracing flexibility with both hybrid and remote roles is best for us.”
  • “The amount of time an employee spends in the office will vary based on their role and responsibilities,” explains New Balance CEO Joe Preston. “Time in the office will be focused around innovation and collaboration, coaching and development.”
  • Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield says that Slack “was an office-centric company. But we learned over the last year that flexible work works – we were even more productive and innovative. Slack is now a digital-first company.”
  • Zillow CEO Rich Barton says that, like Slack, Zillow had “a traditional office-centric culture because we believed it was critical to our innovation and creativity. The pandemic completely upended that belief.”

It’s clear that many executives are embracing the potential of remote and hybrid work environments. However, some still expressed concerns about things like who should be in the office, and when, and for what purposes. Or how to balance interactions between in-office and remote workers without excluding either. Or how to stimulate impromptu conversation when employees are no longer colocated.

They want to maintain a sense of human connection, and they want to facilitate spontaneous exchanges. They are hopeful that emerging processes and technologies will help tie everything together, enabling the autonomy and flexibility of remote work while still encouraging meaningful in-person collaboration and team building.

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Steered serendipity

For decades now, big tech companies have been paying architects millions to steer employees toward serendipitous encounters in physical workplaces. They’ll spend millions trying to steer people toward serendipity in digital spaces, too. There will be a big market for products that can deliver remote serendipity.

There are already a number of popular tools available that promise to serendipitously connect distributed teams. Applications such as Branch, Donut, and Tandem virtually recreate various elements of the in-person office experience, including “water cooler” gatherings.

Those types of tools fulfill a need, but they probably won’t bridge the gap between face-to-face versus remote collaboration entirely. A lot of the current serendipity solutions seem to be trying to virtually recreate physical environments and experiences. However, designers will have to go further.

Instead of trying to recreate the serendipitous encounters of the office, designers will need to focus on novel ways to engineer creative interactions in digital spaces. Don’t just simulate the office. Design something better. There are unique opportunities for serendipity in digital environments that can’t be duplicated in meatspace. Tools that successfully exploit those opportunities will prove the most valuable.

Serendipity is a process that has been modeled by many. Most processes have weak links. The apparent weak link in the serendipity process as applied to remote work – at least as most executives seem to see it – is how to stimulate serendipitous encounters among distributed employees.

Process need, according to management guru Peter Drucker, is one of the primary sources for innovative opportunities. People are aware of a weak link, but tend to work around it instead of solving the problem. There is opportunity available to the innovator who can provide the missing link.[4] It’s possible that virtually recreating water coolers is just a workaround, and the real breakthrough lies in capitalizing on the uncommon affordances for serendipitous encounters found only in digital domains.

It’s also possible that the weak link in the remote serendipity process isn’t the tools being used, but is instead the preparedness of the people using them. Why should we assume that simply nudging people into unplanned interactions will result in serendipitous outcomes? Maybe companies need to devote some effort to preparing their workers for serendipity.

Researcher Lennart Björneborn of the University of Copenhagen explores the interplay between activities and structures in both physical and digital spaces. According to Björneborn, it is a combination of environmental and personal factors that results in serendipity in either space. He proposes a framework that considers three key affordances for serendipity: how diversified the environment is, how it can be traversed, and how it is sensed. These affordances are generally coupled with any of the three key personal factors of curiosity, mobility, and sensitivity.[5]

There are also a number of sub-affordances within Björneborn’s framework. Are there opportunities for people to encounter something unanticipated? Can people from different departments or fields interact? Is the environment highly accessible? Can the user move through the space using multiple paths? Does the environment invite the user to explore? Is content in the environment presented in ways that trigger the user’s senses? Does the environment use analogies or patterns that might help users make serendipitous connections?[6]

Serendipity often results from a combination of exploratory and goal-directed behavior.[7] A serendipitous digital environment must enable users to find what they are looking for, and what they aren’t. They should be able to do things that were planned, and things that were not. They should encounter people they know, and people they don’t. They should be able to take a direct path to something sought, and they should be allowed to wander.

Designers can’t really steer users toward serendipity since no one knows exactly when or where serendipity will happen. The task for designers and managers is to create an environment where affordances for serendipity abound, and then offer incentives for users to enter and explore that environment.

If companies fear loss of serendipity when workers are remote, they need to provide those workers with online environments that foster serendipitous encounters and discoveries. They also need to help those workers develop a serendipitous mindset, and implement policies and practices that encourage serendipity.

Are companies willing to provide training that prepares employees for serendipity and innovation? Training that helps them learn to vary their routines, be more observant, relax their boundaries, draw on experience, look for patterns, and seize opportunities?[8]

Will employers adopt practices that foster workplace serendipity? At a minimum, companies will need to have policies and practices in place that address the following:

  • Diversity. Diverse groups are more creative and innovative than homogeneous groups. Diverse groups provide different information, perspectives, and opinions, resulting in better decision making and problem solving. Even a single newcomer can enhance group creativity.
  • Psychological safety. Remote team members must feel comfortable taking risks without fear of humiliation, rejection, or reprisal. They must be confident that they can ask naïve questions, propose novel solutions, explore unorthodox ideas, challenge assumptions, and admit mistakes. Managers must find ways to build trust and transparency among remote teams, and make sure no one feels like they are “out of the loop.”
  • Egalitarianism and inclusion. When some employees are virtual and some aren’t, the ones who are may feel left out and less respected than the employees who are in the office. Managers must avoid unintentionally creating two tiers of employees that relegates remote workers to a perceived lower caste.

The idea that cognitive work should require people to gather in the same place at the same time under close supervision – like physical work does – is Industrial Age thinking. This office-as-factory model is outdated and unnecessary. Bad managers talk about the erosion of “office culture” and the loss of serendipity when they explain their aversion to remote work. What they really fear, though, is loss of control.

Remote work introduces new affordances for serendipity, and a hybrid work model increases the likelihood of serendipity by combining remote and physical workspaces. If anything, a hybrid work model offers companies a chance to double down on serendipity.

The industrialization of textile production persisted despite attacks from the Luddites. Likewise, the hybridization of knowledge work will expand in spite of managers who continue to see physical offices as serendipity factories. Decoupling people from their physical office hub does not have to mean disengaging them from creativity, innovation, or fruitful encounters. Serendipity will survive.

Notes

1. Jennifer M. Larson, “The Weakness of Weak Ties for Novel Information Diffusion,” Applied Network Science 2, no. 14 (2017): 1. https://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s41109-017-0034-3

2. Ibid, 2.

3. Keith Head, Yao Amber Li, and Asier Minondo, “Geography, Ties, and Knowledge Flows: Evidence from Citations in Mathematics,” The Review of Economics and Statistics 101, no. 4 (2019): 714-726. https://doi.org/10.1162/rest_a_00771

4. Peter F. Drucker, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (New York: HarperCollins, 2009): 69-74.

5. Lennart Björneborn, “Three Key Affordances for Serendipity: Toward a Framework Connecting Environmental and Personal Factors in Serendipitous Encounters,” Journal of Documentation 73, no. 5 (2017): 1058. https://doi.org/10.1108/JD-07-2016-0097

6. Ibid, 1059-1065.

7. Ibid, 1069.

8. Stephann Makri et al., “’Making my own luck’: Serendipity Strategies and How to Support Them in Digital Information Environments,” Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology 65, no. 11 (2014): 2186. https://doi.org/10.1002/asi.23200

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