Serendipity Without Shoes: Promoting Collision with Remote Teams

As more and more organizations in Asia Pacific move to work-from-home setups due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many are discovering that they still are able to efficiently work. Even the least digitally inclined organization, after all, has basic messaging, workflow, and management tools that enable teams to operate with reasonable productivity.

The operative word there might be productivity. Remote work, in short, is oriented toward maintaining or optimizing what the organization already does, rather than coming up with new ideas, strategies, and offerings. The latter is still best done face-to-face at an office in a particular way that is difficult but not impossible to approximate in a remote setting. This ideal form of in-person collaboration are not meetings as some might assume, but collisions.

Zappos CEO and founder Tony Hsieh believes collisions, or serendipitous encounters between employees, are the key to an organization's success. Hsieh has always prioritized collisions over convenience, going so far as to close secondary exits at their headquarters so that all employees are funneled to a single entryway on their way out or in. Hsieh himself tries to have “1000 collissionable hours” every year in downtown Las Vegas, the community he and several partners have been revitalizing since 2009 with more than US$350 million. Such collisions in the office and out in the world are the wellspring of innovation, as study after study has shown.

How can collisions occur in a work-from-home setting? Your colleagues are now profile photos and short usernames. You can very well walk over to your watercooler, but you’ll likely be greeted by only the stirrings of your cat. The digital tools in your tech stack are also designed to facilitate collaboration over existing projects, not promote the kind of conversation that may at first seem innocuous but may in fact lead to something new. Remote work, in other words, generally keeps employees within their designated lanes.

Alas, all hope is not lost. While nothing can truly replace the face-to-face collisions that occur in a physical workplace, entrepreneurs can do their part to create the virtual equivalent.

Have a weekly agendaless meeting.

At the office, it’s a time-suck when we’re called into a meeting that could have easily been handled with an email. In a remote setting, we should embrace these so-called useless meetings. In fact, we should try to schedule a time every week to have them. There should be no agenda of any kind other than to “check-in” with one another. 

You may talk about the projects you’re currently working on. You may talk about the organization’s direction in general. You may talk about COVID-19 statistics, the world response to the pandemic, or even whether you think the NFL season will push through in the fall. You should discuss whatever you feel like. It’s not the content that matters, but the simple fact that you’re communicating. Doing so creates the mindspace for new ideas to germinate and flourish.

If an entire meeting is not possible, you may set aside time at the start of another regular teleconference for such chatting. Any amount of informal conversation is better than none. You may also want to consider organizing these agendaless meetings in smaller groups or even as 1-on-1’s if it is more feasible that way. This banter helps with not only idea generation, but also with mental health, which may be especially needed at a time when we’re working remotely due to a crisis. 

Create a virtual watercooler.

Even if you’re fortunate enough to set an agendaless meeting for an hour or so each week, that still leaves the vast majority of our workdays as uninterrupted alone time. It’s just you in front of your screen, typing away, with the odd ping from a colleague. This set-up is lonely, and it produces no collisions.

To encourage round-the-clock collisions, you should create a virtual watercooler, which may take the form of a private group or channel for your team. This area should be the Wild West of your remote working: Anything goes here. If a team member has a funny meme worth sharing, he should put it here. If a team member wants to poll his colleagues about something, he should survey them here. If a team member has an idea, he should pitch it here.

These virtual coolers present a paradox: The less restrictions you put on how people should use them, the more they will. As with a real world watercooler, the vast majority of the conversation at its digital counterpart will be good-hearted nonsense - which again takes on special importance for our well-being during a crisis - but there will also be the occasional gem of an idea for your business. 

Social engineer collisions.

While you cannot lock all but one of the office entrances like Hsieh did at Zappos in a remote setting, there are other ways you can facilitate collisions. Doing so may even be necessary. You can set up agendaless meetings and a virtual watercooler with the best of intentions, only to get little results at the start. 

Your colleagues may sit silent during the check-ins, unused to interacting casually via teleconference. Or they may barely speak at the virtual watercooler, unsure of what is fair game to share there. In both of these cases, your team may take time to warm up to these practices, before they eventually hit their stride.

The next best way to get immediate results may be some light-hearted social engineering. Let’s say one of your new direct reports asks you how to accomplish a particular task. Even if you know the answer, you may want to advise him to ask someone from X department. You get an instant collision between him and whoever he ends up asking, and you broaden the internal network of people at the organization he feels comfortable approaching for help. Multiply this forced interaction a few more times, and you become a remote organization with a high potential for collision, and in turn, creativity.


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