Serendipity in distributed working

Serendipity is an essential part of working life.

It might come from a fortuitous conversation in hallways, over coffee or during a quick catch-up while waiting for a meeting to get started. Sometimes it comes from unexpected knowledge gained from overheard snippets in open offices, reading what is on team walls or watching internal presentations.

Those moments can be magical.

 In this article, I will look at the importance of serendipity at work and what we can do to bring it back into our everyday working lives.

People want to connect; it’s human nature. Because of this, when we worked together in offices we tended to have spontaneous and unstructured conversations with people outside of our immediate sphere.

These chance encounters could often lead to magical, serendipitous moments like making new connections, joining up work and concepts, sparking ideas, solving challenging problems or innovations through the collision of perspectives.

The loss of serendipity

With so many people working away from the office, there have been fewer opportunities for serendipity to happen. Video meetings start when the camera is switched on, without the social aspects around the edges, we eat lunch away from colleagues and we lose the liminal spaces that exist in between the meetings.

Assisted serendipity

Forward-thinking organisations create environments to increase the opportunities for serendipity to happen. Steve Jobs famously did this by planning the flow of people in buildings.

“If a building doesn’t encourage [collaboration], you’ll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that’s sparked by serendipity. So we designed the building to make people get out of their offices and mingle in the central atrium with people they might not otherwise see.” – Steve Jobs

Digital teams work in the open by putting up conversation-triggering artefacts on the wall and inviting people to drop by, or by holding show and tells so people can learn about their work.

Assisting serendipity in distributed organisations

Now people are distributed, it takes extra effort to create the right environment for serendipity. We can learn a lot from people that have been doing this for a while and from ideas that are emerging.

Here are 4 approaches that can help with this. Some are synchronous and some asynchronous, it’s essential to have both. They are intended to help people stay connected to each other and the organisation. They can be started now and continued into the future—no matter what that looks like.

1. Random coffee

People are paired at random to have an agendaless conversation. It allows people who would not usually see each other to take the time to learn more about each other and what they are doing. Random coffee works brilliantly when co-located and distributed.

“Participants gained new insight into the workings of other departments. People realised they faced common issues and brought new perspectives to problems. Ideas for future collaborations and projects took root. It was assisted serendipity in action.” – Ryan Holmes, Chairman of Hootsuite

The University of Michigan, who have a random coffee initiative called Innovate Brew, use it to bring people together from different disciplines and describe it as giving people “permission to talk to strangers”.

I use (remote) random coffee with an agile community that I run as a way of deepening relationships and connections over a distributed community. 30 mins every 2 weeks. To keep the community feeling, we share selfies and a thanks after each meeting.

2. Virtual fika

The Swedish practice of fika is more than a coffee break; it is making time to slow down and take a break with friends or alone.

Remote-working champion Lisette Sutherland tells us how to create this online by scheduling the break, inviting people to fika, asking people to bring their own coffee and seeding it with icebreaker questions.

3. Working in the open: Weeknotes, show and tells, 2-minute video updates and P2

One thing we lose when we are working from home is the ambient awareness of what is going on around the office. We can’t wander by a team’s working space or call someone over as they are passing by which leads to people feeling out of touch and increasing team silos.

It is vital to do a little extra work to make it easy for people to find out what’s going on. These 3 approaches can help.

Weeknotes: At Public Digital, teams use weeknotes to share what they have been working on in a short-form, easy to digest, asynchronous format. Keeping this short means it’s easy to get a quick overview of what’s going on and hooks to ask more questions.

Weeknotes also work well as short (up to 2 minutes) video updates—something people can watch over lunch.

P2 posts: Automattic, the guardians of WordPress, have been a globally distributed organisation since their creation in 2005. Not only are they not co-located, but they also work in different time zones and often asynchronously. They use P2 blog posts to work in the open and post everything on them, including updates, company news, work for review and files. At Automattic “if it’s not on P2, then it didn’t happen.”

Show and tells: Showing work in progress, team approaches, what you have learnt and where you are going through short presentations is an excellent way for people to learn about what teams are doing. It allows for others to get involved at the right time, ideas to spread and to gather feedback. When you are doing this remotely, it’s essential to make sure that you keep things short, engaging and have a mechanism for gathering feedback and questions.

4. Communities of practice

Communities of practice bring together people with shared passions from disparate parts of the organisation, which fosters crossover, alignment, learning, collaboration and inspiration.

Communities of practice communicate in many ways, one of which is a regular get together where people can share ideas, present work, discuss topics and solve problems.

They can grow in distributed organisations through video conferencing and collaboration tools. Bringing people together to learn from across an organisation is more powerful now than ever as it helps to spread learning and ideas.

Creating opportunities for serendipitous moments is an exercise in increasing human connection in a time when people have never felt more isolated from each other.

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