Serendipity, I have just found out, is what drives businesses forward. Steve Jobs apparently called it the “key to innovation”. I must admit I had always connected the term with a fortuitous event like coming across a special treasure on a flea-market, or perhaps a book on Amazon, thanks to a review by another reader. Or perhaps sitting next to someone on a plane (when we used to do that) and engaging in an interesting conversation.
But a recent translation project made me aware that its main use right now is in a business context, more concretely in the raging battle about WFH vs. office-based working. In that environment, serendipity is defined as the potential for accidental, unanticipated encounters that promote and encourage spontaneous conversations between people. Typically, this happens at the coffee maker, near the printer, in the bathroom, or perhaps when the landlord organizes a fire evacuation drill and you suddenly find yourself in group of people you don’t normally talk to. Smokers, I guess, have even more chances for such impromptu meetings, though by their very nature, these are a bit more predictable and restrictive.
Companies like Yahoo and Google claim that it was serendipitous encounters between employees that sparked innovations such as Gmail and Street View. Must we conclude therefore that these breakthroughs would have never happened if their staff were all working from their kitchen or living room?
Did you know that Steve Jobs designed the Pixar HQ with central bathrooms, with the clear vision of having people who wouldn’t otherwise ever get together, run into each other? A kind of “organized” serendipity therefore, for starting up unexpected conversations and perhaps that latest revolutionary idea.
I wanted to explore this just a little bit more, and put “serendipity, covid, working remotely” into the Google search engine. That resulted in 826.000 hits, all with promising titles such as “Is Covid-19 stamping out serendipity in the workplace?”, “Competing with work-from-home to foster in-office serendipity”, “Beyond remote work: Bringing serendipity back to the office”, “Working from home makes sense for some, but we can’t afford to sacrifice serendipity”, etc. etc. The headings signal a widely-spread fear that by working from home we are losing that valuable spontaneous moment that is serendipity.
Many will say that the work-from-home experiment that was forced on us has gone rather well, probably better than expected. Some companies look forward to huge savings on rent. Others are starting to consider outsourcing most of their work to freelancers – another saving because they cost less than regular employees and don’t get benefits like holidays and sick pay. Clearly, the leap from having your employees work from home to shifting the work to freelancers is much less of a quantum leap than when they’re all at the office.
Much has in the meantime been said about the detrimental effects of remote working on mental health, and just how much concentration and discipline it takes to shift all your meetings onto a video platform. Special efforts are needed, in the remote scenario, to make work “more human again”, and Zoom fatigue has set in. I am afraid too, that people have become more detached, as their sense of belonging and camaraderie has diminished somewhat.
Some say they get more sleep, more exercise, they spend more time cooking, walking the dog, and chatting to their neighbours across the balcony. Others complain that they can never stop working and can never switch off; they’re always on their laptop, even in bed. Their work-life balance is totally out of synch. One quote (not from Alpha) is “We’re just as unproductive as we were before”. Others fear that the gap between the worst-paid and the well-paid is getting even bigger, because the former simply don’t have a choice when it comes to workplace location, and the savings all accumulate with the better-off. I personally continue to be convinced that the idea of spending your working day together with others, exchanging ideas, on-boarding new people, coaching trainees and juniors, having a word with someone by going over to their desk, is the best option. So I am happy to embrace serendipity as an important principle of professional life. In fact, it fits perfectly for our business model. Just that I do not believe the word has been used at Alpha before. Probably because we took it for granted. Now, that we are at risk of losing it, it’s good to have a word for it.