This CBC news article “Working from home makes sense for some, but we can’t afford to sacrifice serendipity” article argues that remote working results in a loss of “In-Person Workplace Serendipity” from “[running] into each other without an agenda, get to talking, and creativity is sparked.” I don’t know. I remain skeptical of this.
My experience with my own workplaces is that there is very little creativity. When a person only interacts with their teammates who are people in the same field, I argue very little serendipity happens. In fact, there are theories about this in that it lacks “creative abrasion” and experiences “group think”.
How To Properly Access Serendipity
Where I’ve experienced serendipity is from “going outside the normal”. That is, attending cross-disciplinary events and getting views from completely different life experiences. It is unlikely most people will get this kind of cross-disciplinary access at work unless they have access to great leadership. The TED talk “The secret to great opportunities? The person you haven’t met yet” explains how this cross-disciplinary approach to networking changes life in what I feel is true serendipity.
Now, of course, the benefits of in-person workplace serendipity depends on the actual work. If a person is in a field that requires constant creativity/building of something it may make sense for in-person interaction… but again, these types of activities benefit usually by working in pairs which may still be able to be done remotely just fine (e.g. “pair programming”). There is a lot of evidence that groups beyond 2 people become less productive. The article mentions summer students and yes, I agree, in person interactions would work best for summer students. However, saying that a lot is lost by interacting remotely just seems wrong. I myself have supported developing individuals and adapting to what they need remotely has been similar to what I would do in-person.
Perceived Barriers to Remote Working
If you watch the video in this same article Linda Duxbury mentions remote workers don’t have child or elder care. Why?? How is that the fault of working remotely? That sounds like it’s not structured correctly. She does mention that bosses may not be familiar with managing people remotely but again, this comes around to the fact no one has been willing to try it, learn and change on a mass scale until now. This sounds a lot like “we’ve always done it this way why would we change?” thinking.
A related article “Video chats short circuit a brain function essential for trust — and that’s bad for business: Don Pittis” suggests that video meetings are “an inadequate substitute for real-life interaction” causing a phenomenon now referred to as “Zoom fatigue”. As a long time remote worker, I whole-heartedly agree that video meetings are bad. But audio meetings? Us long time remote workers haven’t used video for the most part except for screen sharing.
There are obvious problems with video meetings; Have you noticed that you look at a person’s eyes but they are also looking at your eyes and because the cameras are at different spots it just comes off as awkward? This is why I’ve discussed teleprescence which would resolve this and many other issues. But the fact is, we don’t have access to this technology at the individual level yet. In the meantime, audio is superior to video/audio meetings. That’s why I suggest for productivity purposes that after initially meeting by video that folks move to audio-only. The article agrees by saying “you can make a better judgement from listening to audio alone” versus using video.
In-Person Workplace Serendipity
I believe this is just change at work. I don’t think all is lost with remote working and In-Person Workplace Serendipity won’t get replaced completely by remote working. It will get modified. I believe this experience is giving us the opportunity to learn and grow. For instance, maybe we learn exactly those types of situations of which being in-person leads to true serendipity. Then, I believe we’ll have come through to the other side.
If you’d like more articles on the dangers of like-mindedness, a danger present in most teams, see more here “Why Being With Like-Minded People Is Dangerous”
About the Author
Trevor Textor has worked in various roles requiring remote work since 1997. Since 2014 he’s been supporting small, medium and large businesses as a freelancer (contingent labor) with a “swiss-army knife”-like suite of skills. In addition to setting up policy, procedures and technology for himself and his partner he has also met this need with clients in enabling their remote work. Trevor has been quoted by Reader’s Digest, NBC News, Reviews.com and MarketWatch.com. Ask Trevor if he can help: https://www.textor.ca/contactme/.