By Sarah Drumm | 2nd February 2021
Speaking in October, the Bank of England’s chief economist Andy Haldane shared his concerns.
Without the opportunity for people to bump into each other around the office, he argued, we are starved of the raw ingredients required to stimulate creativity. “Home working means serendipity is supplanted by scheduling, face-to-face by Zoom-to-Zoom,” he said. “What creativity is gained in improved tunnelling [focus] is lost in the darkness of the tunnel itself.”
It’s easy to figure out how much money a company could save by scrapping its office space. But it’s far harder to put a figure on what a business loses when its employees can’t interact in the same room as each other – but the potential knock-on effects can be wide ranging.
Mental health-related absences could increase if staff aren’t given enough opportunities to socialise (many workers are already reporting experiencing loneliness as a result of working from home during the pandemic). It’s a diversity issue too: for team members who already struggle with feelings of marginalisation, isolation could hinder career progression. According to McKinsey, knowledge workers typically spend 14% of their week chatting to other team members – and that non-verbal cues have a greater impact on building a positive impression. Chance encounters outside of formal meetings are a way for employees to build up the rapport needed to land exciting projects or even promotions. What happens to their potential in a WFH world?
“Zoom is okay for a holding pattern, but it’s not good if you want to get ahead and it’s especially not good for those who historically have not been [represented],” Martin Kilduff, Professor of Management at the UCL School of Management says. “They don’t have the opportunity to make their presence felt in a way that would be true if [they] were in the workplace itself. You can hold water – but it’s difficult to make the connections or impressions that are going to change your role in the organisation.”
Serendipity, described as “value creation based on unexpected encounters” by Sebastian Olma in his book The Serendipity Machine, is widely considered to be one of the driving forces behind innovation and motivation at companies. Whenever workers bump into each other when making a cup of tea, cross paths as they come in and out of the building, or end up sitting with team mates from different departments at lunch, they are increasing the likelihood of joining the dots in new, unexpected and exciting ways. If they don’t keep building this kind of valuable social capital, their creative capabilities may eventually peter out.
While individual moments of serendipity are impossible to grasp and replicate, strategically designing a workplace to encourage those events is far from impossible.
It’s why Apple co-founder Steve Jobs decided not to separate his design and engineering teams, instead allowing them to bounce ideas around together. It’s also why Google packs its offices with restaurants, kitchens and snack stations, giving workers as many excuses to stop, snack and chat as possible (according to Adobe, you are never more than 150 feet away from food in Google’s New York City campus).
But an open-plan design and an abundance of common areas are not the only things required to encourage serendipitous social interactions. In many cases a cultural shift is necessary, too.
Humans will naturally gravitate towards what and who they are comfortable with. But true serendipity requires people to continuously seek out social interactions across an organisation, not just with people they already know.
“It actually takes somebody with an unusual talent to be able to say, wait a minute, what you’re saying is going to be useful for the people I was talking to yesterday,” Martin explains. “These social network brokers can translate that idea and pass it on to the other group. Without those people all this rearranging of the office is not really going to do that much.”
At Huckletree, we see a huge part of our role as providing that brokering service. Our curation committee looks at the dynamics and chemistry within each of our communities, and every programme we deliver is borne out of what we see happening each day on the ground with our members.
We want our members to create as much value through serendipity as possible – our Huckletree Connects programme and Pure Joy events are ways for members to find common interests with people outside of their organisations, while our Growth Services including office hours and founder consultations help us explore what our members are working on, and understand how we can facilitate mutually beneficial connections. While in lockdown, 89% of founders and startup talent surveyed said they missed their work friends. This is not only about seeing familiar faces, it’s about the interactions that spark ideas, which drive forward momentum – something that every business needs support with right now while life and the economy is slowing.
We think it’s a formula that works. “My favourite part about working at Huckletree is how the environment really allows for creativity,” Huckletree West member and Reckitt Benckiser senior brand manager Sandra Toivo says. “Whenever I [have] a big piece of strategic work looming, I would plan a day at Huckletree to ensure I place myself in the right atmosphere to think outside of the box.”
Most importantly, we also champion each and every one of our members and their successes. A workspace isn’t just about having a desk and a decent wifi connection, it’s about creating a strong and supportive community where every win is celebrated. No mind is an island – and by bringing together ambitious startups and progressive enterprise teams, everybody can get where they are going faster.