Hybrid and remote work is here to stay, but it could diminish the serendipity — random encounters between employees — that is the dark energy behind innovation. This is perhaps the greatest concern among business leaders as their companies evolve into virtual, or semi-virtual, entities.
That’s the finding from a survey out of Achurch Consulting, which finds that business leaders are behind the concept of hybrid and remote work, but, er, have a few concerns. Those center around the potential inhibiting of interaction and culture, the survey finds. Nearly seven in ten respondents (69%) were most concerned with a lack of spontaneous communication, such as the “watercooler” moments or quick office pop-ins.
Serendipity is that random bumping into one another — that unintendedly boosts the cross-fertilization of ideas — that is difficult to measure, but may have spurred many innovations over the years. There are even office building designed specifically to boost those chance encounters.
How important is serendipity to innovation, and can this be replicate across digital channels? I recently put the question to David Lloyd, tech entrepreneur and currently chief data officer at Ceridian, who feels that in-person interactions are still essential. “Zoom wasn’t built on Zoom,” he quips. “Things like design sprints are great techniques for bringing people together to solve interesting problems very rapidly, to prototype and get things in front of the customer. As good as the tools are, Zoom or Miro boards, collaboration works better in person. But you’re not wondering when to jump into a Zoom call, you can read the room. I don’t think we’ve come up with a way yet of transcending that experience. That’s always going to be a challenge.”
Corporate culture is the most essential aspect of the serendipity effect, and also may see adverse effects as a result of hybrid and remote work. At least 60% of the executives in the Achurch survey were concerned the hybrid and remote workplace would change their workplace culture or affect the morale. Executives also cited challenges onboarding new employees (47%), decreased employee collaboration (45%), and a quarter selected administrative or operational challenges.
Many industry leaders are impressed and satisfied with the results of remote and hybrid arrangements so far, however. “The new water cooler might be a Teams meeting, a virtual happy hour or a combination of in-office and in-the-metaverse experiences,” says Jimmy Etheredge, CEO for Accenture North America. “It’s more about a sense of belonging than location. It helps to keep your corporate ear close to the ground. Last year, we collected more than 900,000 pieces of feedback from our people. We’ve seen a lot of passion, commitment and drive. And these feedback channels also help us get early indicators – canaries in the coalmines – when people are struggling.”
More work is needed, however, to facilitate this new hybrid work reality, the Achurch survey suggests. The vast majority, 84%, are not designing policies to encourage team-led collaboration. In addition, only about 40% report they are adapting their office spaces for this new hybrid working environment, with areas for all staff, designated social areas, or collaboration spaces.
“These additions could help tackle organizational concerns regarding culture, communication, and collaboration through design,” the survey’s authors state. “Organizations could benefit from intentional policy design to encourage team-led collaboration. Hybrid policy design is another area where focusing on intentionality could help organizations achieve desired outcomes. Currently, organizational policies seem to focus on attendance rather than using in-office presence to fuel collaboration, deepen culture, and seize upon water cooler moments.”