May 25, 2023

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:

Serendipity in action:

Small scale: The college experience:

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.

Image credit: Dylan Nolte

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:

Unfavorable factors against online serendipity:

How can you design serendipity into the employee experience?

(Designing serendipity)

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:

As an employee experience designer:

As an employee:

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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