How remote teams are reinventing the art of 'lucky' creative conversations
Before COVID-19 transformed the way we work, commuting was consistently reported as one of the most unpleasant of life’s regular habits. Other studies showed people are happier and more productive if allowed to work for some of the working week from home. Some are even willing to accept a pay cut for the privilege.
As the post-pandemic dust settles the minimum HR directors, CEOs and managers will need to plan for is a more hybrid office vs remote work balance. A burning question in this context: how can teams think creatively together, when they’re not all in the same room?
A big challenge is replicating ‘lucky conversations’ that occur when one human being bumps into another. Chance encounters are often the beginning of a creative process. Here are five approaches businesses are using to replicate the spontaneous ‘water cooler effect’ online.
The start-up Knock offers a digital representation of a physical office. You can locate your workmates and use a variety of tools to interact with them more spontaneously. The founders hope it will remove “some of the loneliness of remote work.”
Seattle-based gaming company Flowplay tested the idea of a virtual meeting that stays open for the entire working day. Employees then have a constant video presence as they work, as if they were sitting next to each other.
Randomised virtual meetings
Founded in 2014, the collaboration software business Gitlab styles itself as the world’s largest all-remote company. Gitlab offers various routes for random connections. One example is Donut Bot chats where members of the #donut_be_strangers Slack channel are randomly paired.
Gay Flashman, CEO and founder of Formative Content, said: “We’ve done 15x15 in our virtual office. That’s 15 minutes of conversation with 15 new people over a few weeks for new joiners. Random breakout groups in Zoom meetings once a week have been useful for us as you get thrown together with people you wouldn’t usually work with.”
In the video messaging app Loom, a worker can record their screen, voice and face in one bundled video to share with colleagues. Not ‘live’ and spontaneous. However, the idea is rapid-fire video messages can capture a little of the dynamism of creative teamwork, especially when team members are operating from different time zones.
Research shows humour and a light-hearted environment leads to people being less stressed, happier and more creative. GitLab has created a vibrant culture of watercooler Zoom meetings.
Among the dozens of ways co-workers can virtually connect: Juice Box talks for family members of employees to get to know one another, international pizza parties, virtual scavenger hunts and a shared 'Team DJ Zoom Room'.
More straight-laced organisations are getting in on the act. Goldman Sachs offers cooking classes via Zoom. Linklaters, the law firm, launched virtual choir workshops. One leader on a recent virtual programme I ran at London Business School puts an hour at the end of the week for colleagues to gather virtually for ‘quarantinis’.
Steve Jobs understood the power of luck. He famously designed the Pixar HQ with the bathrooms in a central atrium. As a result, the building forced employees to cross their legs or creatively collide.
Jobs said: “There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email. That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow’, and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.”
For the moment, physical meetings still have the edge for team creativity. However, in the disrupted 2020s there is little choice to achieve more ‘lucky’ conversations online. The race is on to keep creativity afloat amid the rising tide of remote work.
Greg Orme is the author of The Human Edge, how curiosity and creativity are your superpowers in the digital economy