The future of work: serendipity in a remote-first world

All business value begins with an idea. Most new ideas never see the light of day, but a few prove to be the engines at the heart of business success. It could be argued that organisations rise and fall on the strength and frequency of their ideas, but how can you make the sparks of ideation fly in today’s remote working world?  

“50% of our investment ideas come from informal conversations in the office.”

Chatting to a hedge fund recently about remote working, we discovered that about 50% of their investment ideas were born from informal conversations in the office. How, they asked, can this be replicated in a remote working world? We’ve heard similar concerns from many businesses who placed casual office conversations at the heart of their innovation process.  

Remote working and video collaboration seem too stilted and, well, “remote” to allow for chance conversations. But much of the richness of being together in the same building can be replicated and even amplified with the right digital workplace and – more importantly – creative ways of working. Here’s how.  

5 ways to enable chance connections in your digital workplace 

1. Build an online community

One of the best ways to bring about chance connections is to design and launch an online community like Yammer or Workplace. It’s one of the hardest parts of digital workplace to get right but the value of doing so is enormous. Healthy online communities (aka ESNs: Enterprise Social Networks) use social media features to keep you plugged in to what matters most to your job success and aspirations. They provide a rare peripheral vision of what’s going on outside your usual day–to–day. This bird’s eye view of the business allows for many chance connections and serendipitous conversations. 

At AstraZeneca the Future Worx team built an online community that allowed scientists across the globe to see into each other’s worlds for the first time and hit upon new research and drug production ideas through open discussion on the platform. It became their facilitator for innovation. 

Microsoft Teams and other messaging platforms will get you part way there but remember they’re designed for teams not broad communities and rarely provide that over the fence view that enables chance connections. And if you think ESNs are a bit last decade, think again as Microsoft is investing heavily in refreshing Yammer in 2020, and Workplace has over 5M paying customers across global brands as wide-ranging as Walmart, Vodafone, Spotify and Heineken. 

2. Be open by default

The tendency in most workplaces is for people and teams to work on outputs in isolation, only showing work to others on a need to know basis. There will always be a need to restrict access to certain content but having a “closed by default” culture sets up silos and prevents serendipitous connections. 

When collaboration channels and document repositories are open by default then people across an organisation have the opportunity to discover content through search, newsfeeds, and notifications and then strike up discussion with content authors. This is even more powerful with a community platform to connect the dots but, more importantly, an open by default policy begins with a shift in culture and practice and a call for change from leadership. 

As an example, Children’s charity UNICEF depends on the resourcefulness of over 14,000 people working in more than 190 countries and territories around the globe to protect children and young people. For them to be truly innovative and responsive, closed by default was not an option, so they implemented Yammer to become an open, connected organisation where any individual could tap into the collective intellect and experiment with new ideas. 

3. Work out loud

Related to being open by default is the practice of working out loud. The phrase was coined 10 years ago by Bryce Williams during the Enterprise 2.0 movement and later refined by John Stepper. As we enter the remote working era, the concept is more important than ever. 

The central idea is to form a habit of sharing and narrating your work in the digital workplace, in a way that might be helpful for others, so that you massively increase the opportunity for chance encounters and serendipitous discussions that lead to new ideas and synergies. When done well this is even more powerful than casual chats at the office, because you’re now visible to a much broader group. 

Working out loud can take many forms. It starts with being open by default with your work, sharing early and imperfect drafts and asking for feedback. It then moves to sharing your challenges and narrating your work on online channels like Microsoft Teams, Yammer, or Workplace. Ultimately, it’s about showcasing your professional self and outputs so that others can engage and benefit in ways that generates new ideas and opportunities. 

Again, working out loud is much more about culture change than technology, but the practice can be instilled and nurtured through people-centric digital transformation programmes, as we’ve proved at Ralph Lauren, Virgin Media, and the European Commission, to name a few. 

4. Informal design thinking

Design thinking is a concept that’s been bandied about plenty in the past decade and there are dozens of frameworks you can apply, but in essence it’s about creating a space, defining a problem, running creative exercises, and setting a time limit for new ideas to emerge and be developed. Now that the chance for informal discussions has reduced, instead schedule time for informal design thinking sessions to tackle so called wicked problems in a fun and playful way. 

This may seem over orchestrated, but its power lies in creating opportunities for lateral thinking to emerge. Imagine a lunchtime video meeting with your team where the host presents a problem, gives 5 minutes for participants to scribble down solution ideas, then each person has two minutes to pitch. The group then votes on the best idea to develop and the host conducts a round of design thinking exercises to see where it leads. Maybe the idea falls flat or maybe there’s a breakthrough. The point is to create the opportunity in real time, online. 

At Future Worx, we run creative sessions like these online to help our clients think laterally about how to improve their business processes and workflows using the best of today’s digital workplace tools. You really don’t need to be in the same room to get the creative juices flowing! 

5. Random coffee meetings

Another way to simulate chance conversations when working remotely is to facilitate random coffee meetings between individuals who would not bump into each other in their normal day-to-day. The idea is to connect people randomly via short scheduled video meetings, chat about their challenges and different points of view and just maybe hit upon new and interesting ideas. 

There are services available like Microsoft’s Icebreaker app to facilitate this, but you can also go low tech with a spreadsheet and someone to coordinate. Ask for volunteers and see what emerges. 

Capture and grow your ideas 

Each of these technique aims to increase the chance of serendipitous connections so that new ideas can be born, but all too often, when inspiration strikes, the idea just fades away. To capture ideas, qualify them, and grow the best ones to perfection you may want to consider an idea management platform like Sideways6 or at least have a dedicated place online for sharing ideas and a process for validating and carrying forward the ones that show promise.  

How Future Worx can help 

At Future Worx, we’ve helped our customers achieve game changing results with these and many other techniques, but they require a major shift in thinking and company culture. This is where we can help. Future Worx specialise in helping companies completely reinvent the way work gets done in a remote-first world. We do this by putting your people at the heart of change to drive adoption and proficiency of digital workplace tools and smarter ways of working.

 Get in touch today to schedule a digital workplace temperature check with one of our experts. 

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