A pandemic joke shows a stoic officer worker asking his virtual colleagues: “Should we schedule our next Zoom meeting, or just hit ourselves repeatedly in the head with a hammer?” Thanks to the Coronavirus, we’re all experiencing the mind-numbing boredom that video conferencing can offer. Despite this, we’ll never work in the same way again. The balance has been irrevocably shifted. Too many organizations see the cost savings of remote work. Too many workers have experienced the upsides.
Numerous studies show people are happier and often more productive if allowed to work a few days each week from home. Some are even willing to accept a pay cut for the privilege. Commuting is consistently reported as one of the most unpleasant of work’s rituals. The leadership debate has moved on. The burning question: how can teams be creative, when they’re not in the same room?
Part of the answer is figuring out how to replicate ‘lucky conversations’: the chance encounters that occur when one human being bumps into another. A decade of analysis into the human networks that produce academic papers and patents was clear: collaboration is fuelled by spontaneous face-to-face interactions.
It was an absence of serendipitous chats that caused Yahoo to end its experiment with large-scale home working in 2013. A leaked memo concluded: “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.”
Here are five approaches businesses are using to replicate the watercooler effect, but online.
1. Virtual Hang-outs
The start-up Knock offers a digital representation of a physical office. You can locate your workmates and use a variety of tools to interact. The founders hope it will remove “some of the loneliness of remote work.” Community gaming company Flowplay tested a virtual meeting that stays open for the entire working day. Employees have a constant video presence as they work, just as if they were sitting next to each other.
2. Random Virtual Meetings
The collaboration software business Gitlab styles itself as “the world’s largest all-remote company”. Gitlab offers various routes for random connections. For example, anyone who joins the “#donut_be_strangers” Slack channel are randomly paired. Gay Flashman, CEO and Founder of Formative Content, said: “We’ve done ’15 x 15′ in our virtual office. That’s 15 mins of conversation with 15 new people over a few weeks for new joiners. Random Zoom breakout groups once a week have also been useful for us, as you get thrown together with people you wouldn’t usually work with.”
3. Video Messaging
Many online collaboration platforms are adding video messaging as a option. The app Loom enables workers to record their screen, voice and face in one bundled video to share with colleagues. The idea is rapid-fire video messages can capture a little of the dynamism of creative teamwork. Especially when team members are operating from different time zones.
Research shows injecting humor into team interactions leads people to be less stressed, happier and more creative. Among the dozens of ways Gitlab co-workers can virtually connect: Juice Box talks for family members of employees to get to know one another, international pizza parties, virtual scavenger hunts and a shared “Team DJ Zoom Room.” Even more straight-laced organizations are getting in on the act. Goldman Sachs offers cooking classes via Zoom. The global law firm Linklaters has launched virtual choir workshops. On a recent virtual leadership program I ran at London Business School, one executive shared how he saved an hour at the end of the week for colleagues to gather virtually for “quarantinis”.
5. Face-to-Face, But Safe
Facilitating team creativity in a virtual world is not easy. Even the evangelical Gitlab co-founder and CEO Sid Sijbrandij admits, in terms of innovation, remote working is “tougher”. As a result, GitLab encourages some in-person connections. It hosts an annual conference for employees to gather and subsidizes travel expenses for co-workers to attend weddings and other significant milestones.
Formative Content’s Gay Flashman described how her management team is organizing limited face-to-face get-togethers aligned with UK government policy on safety. She said: “Don’t abandon face-to-face. If you can get together in groups of just 6 people (the current UK rule) then IRL (In Real Life) is still a winner.” Dan Burman, CEO of the UK creative agency Chapter agreed: “We still resort to face-to-face for serious brainstorms when we can. We find it just works better.”
Mark Roberts, former Creative Director of independent TV production company Firecrest Films struck a hopeful note for the future: “Strictly agenda-driven ‘Zoom presenteeism’ squeezes the space for ideas. Recreating that spur-of-the-moment coffee conversation after a meeting, rather than going straight into the next one, is the aim. If we can reinvent that feeling online this may be an exciting new world of interactions.”
Despite this optimism, most leaders agree physical meetings have the edge for now. However, in the disrupted 2020s, there’s little choice. Teams will need to rapidly improve their ability to facilitate “lucky conversations” online. The race is on. Stop hitting yourself in the head with a hammer. Instead, spark collaborative creativity in the rising tide of remote work.