A few months ago, my CEO sent me an email asking what I thought about a loose idea she had for a new product for Inventium.
She suggested that I sit on it for a few days and circle back if I was able to develop it further.
I started to flesh it out and we toed and froed predominantly over email for the next week with a couple of phone conversations thrown in the mix.
Four months later, we launched the idea and it’s proving to be our most profitable product for 2020.
While many managers are lamenting the death of serendipitous conversations due to remote working, there are strategies that can be used to build them into our virtual workday.
Create a virtual hallway
One of the challenges of video meetings is that they don’t allow for the ad-hoc conversations that happen immediately before and after these events.
Researchers at MIT are attempting to solve this problem with Minglr.
Minglr is software that facilitates spontaneous chat with those who are free to be interrupted or stick around after the official meeting ends.
Other software solutions tackle the challenge of replacing corridor conversations with ones that can take place in a virtual hallway.
Donut introduces new team members who have never previously met and also makes it easy to schedule virtual coffees with co-workers.
And Hallway makes it easy to schedule time for informal breaks, in addition to letting you put a time limit on the breaks, which feel like corridor conversations.
Rent a virtual office
If scheduling water cooler conversations feels contrived, another solution is to create a virtual office.
Using software such as Tandem, you can be working ‘with’ your co-workers, albeit virtually, and can interrupt and collaborate on digital documents spontaneously, just like you would in a physical office.
Alternatively, a method we have experimented with at Inventium is running ‘virtual caves’.
Inspired by Caveday, every couple of weeks we schedule a two- to three-hour block of time for the entire team.
Everyone brings along tasks they want to complete and we all log onto Google Hangouts and discuss what we will be working on.
We schedule a half-way break for chit chat — which is essentially water cooler conversation — and then get on with it.
Research demonstrates that when accountability is increased at the team level, teams become more interdependent, experience higher success, and are more satisfied with fellow members.
So in addition to promoting serendipitous conversation, we also get a great deal of work done.
While technology solutions abound, going old school and getting on the phone can have its advantages. One of the challenges from working from home is that we can often go for too long without a proper break thanks to back-to-back Zoom meetings.
Research from the University of Colorado uncovered that there is an optimum length of time for breaks.
The researchers found that in contrast to one 30-minute break, hourly five-minute walking breaks boost energy, sharpen focus, improve mood and reduce feelings of fatigue in the afternoon more effectively.
As such, try to take multiple short breaks throughout the day, and use this time to either organise a quick call with a co-worker or call them spontaneously.
Curate your virtual background
One of the best ways to promote creativity is to surround the brain with lots of diverse stimulus, which will help drive more creative water cooler conversations.
Exposure to diverse and random stimulus triggers more thoughts in the brain, which increases the number of new thoughts and ideas that pop up.
If your virtual backdrop is a plain white wall, this does not bode well for promoting creativity with your co-workers.
Instead, curate your background and consider changing it regularly.
Australian finance reporter Alan Kohler changes the books on display on his desk every day, provoking much online conversation.
Likewise, play around with quirky virtual backgrounds to promote diverse thinking.
While it’s easy to lament the death of the serendipitous conversation in the virtual world, start consciously curating the new version of these conversations and watch the ideas flow.