Business leaders have learned a few things over the past two months about the way “work” actually happens inside their companies. (Remote work has been a great education, in this way.) One key lesson: A lot of the work that gets done — certainly more than we realized — requires direct human collaboration that includes decision-making, delegation, coordination, and strategy. And much of the progress we make in that work, the leaps in innovation, the light-bulb moments, happens without us consciously planning for it.
Instead, work happens serendipitously, sort of randomly, often over cups of coffee, before whiteboards, at lunch, amid impromptu conversations. You know, in situations that materialize naturally when teams are working together, in person. That in-person piece, it turns out, is important. I think of a conversation Steve Jobs had with his biographer, Walter Isaacson, about this very topic. “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.”
It seems clear that many of us took for granted just how many ideas were “cooked up” unaccounted for, back when we enjoyed the luxury of working together, in person, with our teams.
We’re becoming conscious of this now because it’s harder to accommodate random, serendipitous collaboration through remote work. It doesn’t just happen the way it did before. Suddenly, we have to plan for it. We have to find a time that’s available across multiple different calendars, all of which have a funny way of filling up faster than before. Strategy sessions require more delicate coordination and are more easily hampered by things like faulty internet connections. Incessant chatting — whether in Slack, Gmail, etc. — inevitably results in chat fatigue, which makes it less likely that important messages or updates are heard and internalized. And brainstorming happens less. Without planning, opportunities for spontaneous conversation simply don’t arise.
The good news, however, is that while serendipitous innovation is a bit harder to encourage and accommodate with remote work, it’s not, in fact, impossible. The key, I think, is internalizing this lesson about the reality of the way work happens inside our companies so that we can begin optimizing for it more purposefully.
The best place to start? Pushing ourselves to finally, truly begin thinking about people first—even with remote work.
For too long, business leaders believed that improving coordination or collaboration among their teams and departments meant implementing tools that captured shared data. Far from appreciating the value of simply putting talented people in a room together, we believed the way to create innovation in our companies was to encumber those people with lots of technology.
The primary problem with this is the tools we often purchase or build or otherwise force our employees to use strangely diminish their ability to engage in fruitful, truly serendipitous conversation. Even though many of these collaboration tools are powerful, and help us collaborate to an extent, really important decisions still require in-depth, impassioned, back-and-forth deliberation. Trying to conduct as much in a virtual setting, in turn, leads to more chatting, more emailing, more meetings — too much of which drains employees of creative energy.
Beyond that, this strategy amounts to the opposite of what we now know we need to do to best empower and creatively liberate employees, which is to pay closer attention to their varying needs and preferences as talented and unique people.
To ensure our internal operations are conducive to the kind of serendipitous collaboration we now know to be invaluable, we need to invest in and operationally empower our most vital asset: our people. We need to design processes and systems in a way that guarantees they have what they need to create and collaborate effectively even when conditions change. Here are just a few of the things people need.
1. Access (even in remote work settings)
Everyone should be able to spend their time in the interface of their choice. Instead of adding more applications for employees to use, or instead of funneling people to a single work environment that might not fit their flow, we should enable employees to access important information and partake in important processes from wherever they want. Staying connected is about bridging gaps, not conforming to a single point of view.
Dedicate time for brainstorms and for unstructured connection. Ensuring that everyone is able to access relevant data is important, but it’s also important to design a culture where people can discuss ideas and test out theories and concerns with each other, as they would in an office setting. That can’t happen unless you plan for it.
3. Proactivity to improve remote work
This, ultimately, is the most crucial element of encouraging water-cooler moments in a virtual environment. Make sure that you design processes and systems such that they proactively deliver data to people and then chase people for input or actions. This can be done through intelligent notifications organized in easy-to-understand-ways, or by way of a bot that knows how to follow-up with people.
You can also manage your workflows more holistically with a composability platform that allows you to lend more tactical credence to the preferences and needs of employees, such that they never have to waste time or energy trying to figure out where to find info, or how to follow up with someone. An ABO platform will also allow you to reserve virtual facetime for brainstorming, and to offload mundane coordination to smart technology, so people can focus on making decisions.
None of this is actually new. Consider the strategies Jobs employed when designing the physical office space Pixar. Here is how Isaacson recalls Jobs’ thought process in designing the Pixar HQ:
“So we designed the building to make people get out of their offices and mingle in the central atrium with people they might not otherwise see. The front doors and main stairs and corridors all led to the atrium; the café and the mailboxes were there; the conference rooms had windows that looked out onto it; and the 600-seat theater and two smaller screening rooms all spilled into it. ‘Steve’s theory worked from day one,’ [John] Lasseter recalls. ‘I kept running into people I hadn’t seen for months. I’ve never seen a building that promoted collaboration and creativity as well as this one.’”
Our role now, as company leaders, is to think about how to do this in a virtual environment.
Here’s the truth: As we proceed further into the post-COVID-19 world, creating processes that enable easy collaboration and encourage serendipitous creativity will prove paramount.
The particulars of how exactly companies should best adapt to the challenges of our new reality—from remote work to other challenges—will continue to evolve, as will the particulars of people-first thinking. What’s important now is that companies embrace the challenge at hand, and commit to finding ways to nurture collaboration and capture the value created by it.
This is, at least, what I’ll be focusing on, in my own company. Because what supercharges creative companies is not a commitment to achieving individual business outcomes, but a commitment to empowering and supercharging the individuals themselves.