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Working From Home: Can the New Water Cooler Be Virtual?

ARTICLES - 18 May 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic has drastically changed our working habits. In February 2021, a survey by Harris Interactive for the French Ministry of Labor highlighted that 52% of French citizens felt isolated and deprived of informal exchanges while working remotely. Institut Montaigne has decided to explore the subject of teleworking in the era of Covid-19 with Laëtitia Vitaud. Author of the book Du Labeur à l’ouvrage ("From Graft to Craft")(Calmann-Lévy, 2019), Director of Cadre Noir Ltd and lecturer at Sciences Po and Paris Dauphine University, Vitaud provides her insights and analyzes the various challenges of working from home. 

In the context of imposed teleworking that we have endured for over a year now, the concept of serendipity has been widely discussed. Can we do without the informal exchanges that take place in the office, and generate new projects and ideas? Can the "magic" that happens between colleagues in a shared office persist beyond the physical workspace? The constraints related to the pandemic and the forced distance between colleagues make us appreciate even more these moments of chance and creativity that we are deprived of today. 

Serendipity refers to the idea that many great things are born out of chance, of accidental but fruitful encounters that could not have been planned. Among the many success stories of serendipity are the invention of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1928, the discovery of X-rays, Viagra, or even radioactivity. The history of sciences offers a long list of different examples. Yet, the word first entered the English language (and then the French language) through literature. It was Horace Walpole who, in 1754, first introduced the term in his tale the Three Princes of Serendip. As a stylistic device, the term played a pivotal role for the unfolding of plots in crime stories and science fiction. 

For decades, tech companies have designed their office spaces according to the principle of serendipity. Already in the 1960s, Bell Labs - AT&T's legendary R&D department - began designing horizontal office spaces (as opposed to the large vertical towers of downtown banks) to facilitate random encounters between its engineers so as to promote innovation. This was the first time that a company purposefully designed its workspace to such an end. 

For decades, tech companies have designed their office spaces according to the principle of serendipity. [...] Serendipity became a sort of religion in Silicon Valley.

Serendipity became a sort of religion in Silicon Valley. Giants like Facebook or Google made it into an almost sacred principle for the design of their headquarters and office spaces. Paradoxically, this led to a trend of "optimization" of random encounters between colleagues. Laszlo Bock, former HR Director at Google and pioneer in the use of big data in the management of human resources published a groundbreaking book on the subject in 2015. In his book, Bock explains that "the main driver of performance in complex sectors, such as the software industry, are interactions that occur by chance". 

Hence, the Google campus was conceived to increase the number and quality of informal exchanges between employees. The massive, 100,000-square-meter building complex was designed so that each employee is located no more than a two-and-a-half-minute walk away from their colleagues. Different teams always work within sight of each other. In practice, remote and flexible work has been possible for years now. However, because they hold on to the idea of serendipity, companies like Google have been rather hostile to remote work.

Before the pandemic, employees increasingly expected more flexible work arrangements, including the possibility of remote work. For a few years now, the "cult" of serendipity in Silicon Valley has been criticized for its excesses: a culture of extreme presenteeism pushes employees to spend evenings and weekends at the office, to enjoy free meals and ping-pong games. Today, concepts such as the open plan are criticized for causing too many distractions and making it hard for employees to stay focused. The success of the book Deep Work in 2016 undoubtedly marked a turning point in this regard: engineer Cal Newport offered new rules to remain focused at work in a world full of distractions. For him, concentration is more valuable than random encounters and interactions. 

In his compelling book about the history of office spaces, Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace (2014), Nikil Saval mocks the quasi-religious trend of serendipity in Silicon Valley: "In the dot-com boom, the idea that two workers from different departments or on different rungs of the ladder might run into each other by chance, and, through the sheer friction of their sudden meeting, combust into a flaming innovation became sanctified as the key to company culture."

Of course physical encounters will continue to matter. But serendipity must now be imagined in a "hybrid" way.

After so many months of pandemic-related frustration and questioning, where do we stand now regarding the future of our work culture? On the one hand, we now understand that it is difficult to promote a corporate culture that helps individuals to develop networks or to make progress on projects without informal exchanges in the office. On the other hand, it will be increasingly difficult to force employees to go to the office from nine to five all week just for the sake of serendipity.

The current situation should invite us to think beyond the traditional view of workplace serendipity. The days of nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday office work are long gone. Therefore the office cannot be the only place for serendipity. Or else there will be too little of it. Of course physical encounters will continue to matter. But serendipity must now be imagined in a "hybrid" way: 

  1. Serendipity is also a question of algorithms. In the old days, we relied on bars or village fairs for romantic encounters. Today, young couples meet via online dating apps and the percentage of couples who meet online has steadily increased for fifteen years. In L’amour sous algorithme ("Algorithm for love") (2019), author Judith Duportail investigates the science behind Tinder’s algorithms. They rate individuals according to "attractiveness". Duportail sought to explore what criteria were used. Understanding serendipity in the context of dating applications involves a whole range of choices about efficiency and ethical questions. What’s true about dating algorithms is true at work too. What tools we use at work, the way they are designed and used matter at least as much as the way the office is designed.
  2. Gamers know it well: the new water cooler can be virtual. Over the past few months, hundreds of millions of gamers made random encounters through applications such as Discord or Twitch. These virtual encounters are in no way "inferior" to those made in real life. In fact, the best video games are those that offer the highest chances of serendipity - it would be a real shame for companies not to tap into this potential. For now, professional tools lag behind video games when it comes to empowering chance encounters. In a recent episode of his podcast a16z, Andreessen Horowitz dealt with "the social serendipity of cloud gaming". Whether they are "virtual" or "augmented", the offices of the future can’t afford to ignore the form of serendipity found in cloud gaming.
  3. Some forms of casual and informal encounters could be formalized. The current focus on random encounters and serendipity is ignoring the needs of more introverted people or people less present in the office due to distance or family constraints. Creating a network of "random" water cooler encounters takes time and tends to leave those behind who are shy or busy. Indeed, the pandemic has been particularly problematic for those with no networks in the company: interns, students who work part-time and new recruits. However, some companies without office spaces came up with original ideas to integrate young people into their teams. For instance, the startup Buffer developed a mentoring system (the "three buddies") that has proven to be an efficient way of onboarding newcomers. This example underlines that it is possible to formalize what used to be informal!
  4. In a hybrid context, we have to ask ourselves new questions about the organization of work. For instance, how to organize better (and have fewer) meetings so that people have more control over their schedule and more time to engage in serendipity? How to make the most of less frequent moments of sociability (team retreats, "optimized" days at the office)? How to allow for better access to information (corporate wiki, Who's Who)? What rules should be put in place to make communication on business networks more inclusive (mansplaining does not disappear with teleworking)? Remote serendipity should not be seen opposed to office serendipity. When it comes to networking, virtual and physical spaces do not compete. They complement one another.





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