No More Water Cooler: How to Engineer Serendipity in the Digital Workplace
Tips on engineering serendipity into the remote employee experience.
The science behind chance encounters
Serendipity. It’s the unpredictable but powerful force behind the unplanned discovery of penicillin, the accidental invention of the microwave, and countless other really good ideas.
It’s convenient to think of serendipity as luck—by definition, these accidental discoveries did not come about on purpose. But really, serendipity is all about intention—about cause and effect. When it comes to creativity and innovation, you can’t control the outcomes, but you can control the environment that enables those outcomes.
Where does serendipity flow?
Countless world-changing inventions have happened seemingly by chance. But look closely, and you’ll notice a pattern: serendipity tends to happen in a particular kind of environment. Whether on college campuses or research labs or major cities, serendipity seems to come from places that are extremely dense with talented people.
This makes sense—get a bunch of curious people together and give them excuses to start talking, and you’ll probably get something new or exciting out of it. But it’s also true that not every college campus, workplace, or research lab yields the same results.
It doesn’t necessarily have to do with the people in those places—instead, it has to do with how they’re encouraged to interact. If a workplace is strictly siloed, for instance, even the smartest people with shared interests simply won’t get the chance to know one another.
The same is true on the other extreme: if a workplace is too structureless, it can start to feel aimless or confusing. In these cases, people often start developing their own siloes.
The best way to accomplish serendipity is to make space for it. While it can be intentional, it can’t be forced.
Serendipity comes from:
Connection: when a group of new people interact for the first time, or when they interact with each other in a new environment.
Perspective: when you see the same thing from a new perspective.
Change: when routines shift, barriers are removed, or unexpected things occur.
Curiosity: when you ask deeper questions about the things you normally observe.
Space: where people have the chance to explore what they’re interested in, dive into rabbit holes, and learn with others.
Serendipity in action:
Small scale: The college experience:
Connection: putting completely random people together into (very small) dorm rooms as freshmen.
Perspective: many people coming together from extremely diverse backgrounds, interests, and lived experiences.
Change: The first semester of college is an even playing field - no one knows anyone, and few hierarchies exist.
Curiosity: people are figuring out what to do with their lives, and are naturally curious about many topics.
Space to explore: clubs, classes, parties are spaces for people to explore interests, passions, and social groups with others.
Large scale: Columbus, OH tech industry:
Columbus, Ohio, where Helm is headquartered, has seen exceptional growth in the past several years, leading to serendipitous innovation, investment, and connection.
Connection: putting a richly diverse population (academically, socially, etc.) into a relatively small geographical area.
Perspective: deep expertise in fields like insurance, healthcare, and manufacturing combined with an influx in new technology.
Curiosity: large academic and research institutions (Ohio State University) combined with new opportunities.
Space to explore: a robust sense of community and region-specific activities.
Does serendipity have to happen in person?
The biggest thing to keep in mind is that serendipity always happens between people. The most obvious way to spark a connection between people is in person, but it can certainly happen online.
When we think of ways to spark serendipity in the workplace, we tend to default to office design. People randomly come together in hallways, at the watercooler, over lunch, and at post-work happy hours.
Remember—the environments that cause serendipity can be deliberately designed. If office spaces can be designed for chance encounters, so too can virtual workspaces. It can be part of the employee experience.
However, even though it’s possible to spark serendipity in remote workspaces, it’s still going to take intentional design.
Favorable factors for online serendipity:
More people from more places = more opportunity to connect.
Asynchronous communication increases discoverability (also noise).
People can more easily share different parts of their lives.
Unfavorable factors against online serendipity:
Less spontaneity: even if everyone’s online, people have far fewer spontaneous conversations over Slack than they do in person.
It’s harder to read body language, which often signals if someone is open to talking.
No small talk: people follow different unwritten rules for online communication, and just don’t talk about the weather on Slack.
Less inherent overlap: in the office, you have a shared environment and likely live in the same city.
How can you design serendipity into the employee experience?
Let’s start with a quick caveat: serendipity can be fostered and encouraged, but it can’t be forced. It’s about creating a space, not necessarily filling it. More often than not, serendipity is in the nooks and crannies of an experience—the stuff that wasn’t planned to happen between the stuff that was. So what can you do to not leave chance to chance?
As a manager:
Talk to your employees about their experience. Lean in with questions—”how” questions increase detail and “why” questions increase depth.
Observe patterns about how your people interact and leaning into that (starting a new Slack channel to discuss x-topic).
Be vulnerable. When it’s appropriate, share something you might not normally share, and open up in a way you don’t normally open up. This implies a sense of psychological safety that can encourage your team members to open up as well.
As an employee experience designer:
Be deliberate about the onboarding process. Give new hires a space to meet and greet peers, managers, leaders, and mentors.
Create learning cohorts. Start learning and development initiatives early, and create a strong sense of community among small, like-minded groups.
Encourage employee groups by making space for them. Allow people to bring their full selves to work and join a community to celebrate and discuss personal topics from sports to geographic locations to identity.
As an employee:
Space before and after meetings. Take advantage of this in-between time to say hi to your team members.
Coffee chats with new people around the org. If you’ve been on the team for a while, consider grabbing coffee or providing mentorship to new hires.
Following up with people when you meet them. If you meet someone briefly, follow up with a message. It’s a quick, easy action that helps build relationships.
Serendipity is as unpredictable as it is important. It’s vital for innovation, so don’t leave it up to chance!
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