In the mid-twentieth century as Bell Labs was creating the future, which is now our present, Mervin Kelly was convinced that “physical proximity was everything”. Kelly became chairman of the board at Bell Labs and designed buildings that intentionally created opportunities for people working across disciplines to bump into each other, informally talk and exchange ideas. Bell Labs’ record speaks for itself, but its success illustrates the concept of creative serendipity. When there are opportunities for people to bump into each other, smart collaborations and new ideas emerge.
At xScion headquarters in McLean, Virginia how much we rely on these serendipitous hallway collaborations is indicated by the mad scribblings on our writable walls and surfaces. How can we maintain that collaboration and creativity in our current reality where we work from home?
In our recent on-demand webinar, Empower Your Now-Remote Teams: Maximize Agility, Velocity and Collaboration, Keith Braddock, xScion’s Enterprise Automation Principle, notes that we have the tools to maintain that serendipitous creativity, but need to shift our thinking for this type of collaboration. We are connected – hyper-connected – to each other at all times, but it’s a matter of thinking about the tools and capabilities we have and how to virtually “bump” into one another to maintain creative serendipity.
Re-thinking our connectivity and capabilities is something we’re used to in the 21st century. I recall working for a few months in the Netherlands during the summer of 2007 at a time when $0.01 per minute Skype-to-landline calls were a relatively new thing. I missed both of my parents’ summer birthdays but made sure to call them Skype-to-landline with birthday wishes. In both cases the conversation started roughly like this:
Me: “Hello! Happy Birthday!”
Mom/Dad: “Who is this?”
Me: “It’s Kevin. Happy Birthday!”
Mom/Dad: “Kevin is in Europe.”
Having lived in a world where overseas calls were unheard of and prohibitively expensive, they couldn’t initially grasp that I was speaking to them from the Netherlands. I was the same son with the same voice who spoke to them on the phone thousands of times, but they initially didn’t recognize me. When they did, the instinct to speak quickly to avoid running up a huge bill kicked in and I had to assure them that the cost was $0.01 per minute so we could talk for as long as they’d like. By the end of the call, they both said it sounded like any other call, or as my dad said, “like you are calling from across town.”
The story highlights how rapidly communication has changed. As recently as the late 1990s, overseas communications for most were characterized by airmail, letters and weeks between responses. By the turn of the century that developed into emails, often sent from an internet café. For most, voice communication was impossible or prohibitively expensive for global communication. Today we have all sorts of options to engage in communication globally, through voice or text, in real time at minimal cost.
Creating Virtual Water Coolers
To create virtual water coolers and maintain creative serendipity while being temporarily dispersed from the workplace, we need to shift our thinking. We have the tools and platforms we can use to “bump” into each other, check-in, share a laugh and develop our thoughts and ideas. Work with your colleagues and figure out what is best. It might be something you do formally, or it may happen organically. The ways to keep relationships and conversations going are as diverse as the conversations and relationships themselves. Some are comfortable with asynchronous conversation- dropping a line before jumping into a task and then checking for a response later. Others prefer real-time back and forth. There are a wide variety of platforms and media preferences (quick text chat, longer form text, voice, video, document or whiteboard sharing) that align with the natures of the people and the context of the interactions.
Think through the process and environment you are trying to re-create. If you are used to bumping into an office neighbor, sharing small talk, developing ideas and taking them to a whiteboard, how can you best replicate that without physical proximity? How do you keep the water cooler interactions going and, when promising ideas arise, how do you take them to the next level for further development? Even though we are working from home, we have tools and connectivity that allow us to virtually bump into each other. At Bell Labs Mervin Kelly created physical architecture that created opportunities for serendipity among colleagues. Today our challenge is to create similar virtual architecture with the tools and platforms we have.
By Kevin Heisey, PhD