How to Inspire Serendipity Despite a Remote Workforce

Talking with a friend about the advantages and disadvantages of remote work, I was struck by his observation that what he missed most about working with colleagues in the office were the serendipitous ideas shared during face-to-face interactions.  While isolation does not necessarily dampen creativity, smart companies have worked hard to create novel, highly interactive, work environments to foster connections between management, teams, suppliers, and even customers.  

For example, Samsung Semiconductor created an entire workspace “designed to spark not just collaboration, but that innovation sought after when people collide” (“Workspaces That Move People,” Harvard Business Review, October 14).  Studies show that workers who spend time together increase productivity, creativity, and, most importantly, innovation.  

Breakthrough innovation often arises serendipitously.  Our most significant inventions, frequently attributed to one person, were often the result of synergy between people resulting in a “Eureka!” moment.  As the story goes, while debating electromagnetism around the dinner table with a bunch of friends, Samuel Morse produced his idea for the telegraph.  

Though Dr. Spencer Silver’s weak adhesive did not succeed for 3M’s application, it took his colleague, Arthur Fry, to imagine a “sticky note” five years later.  The Post It Note was born.

The best ideas often happen when people connect, communicate, and congregate together.  So with so many working from home, how can you be sure your business doesn’t miss out on an extraordinary, serendipitously-generated idea, or even an essential new process improvement that could help keep you afloat or lead to a breakthrough innovation?

Encourage “You know, I was thinking about…” comments.

While you might be tired of leading drawn-out Zoom meetings, it is well worth it not to overlook ideation trigger comments like “What if we…?”  When ideas arise in a virtual meeting, pause, and listen.  Look for unexpressed meaning in questions that might point to a larger issue or frustration.  Often observations present problems but no solution.  Allow time for group discussion or virtual brainstorming on a fix.  Microsoft Teams or an idea board app are good choices for organizing ideas electronically.  Because you cannot force creativity, allow time for individuals to submit ideas.  

Invite and encourage people to ideate together.  

During routine chats with colleagues, employees sometimes wonder why things are not done a certain way.  Especially now, when workflow has experienced dramatic upheaval, you might hear statements like, “It would be SO much easier if we could just…”  These are process observations that underpin continuous quality improvement – simplifying processes while improving quality.  An astute leader will train employees to take note of process ideas and improvements and communicate them.  Companies who can pivot the fastest during this pandemic, have a higher chance to survive.

Make time for ideation.  

If you are having remote work productivity issues, design thinking exercises might help employees solve this problem for you.  You might begin your next virtual meeting by asking, “How might we make working remotely as satisfying and productive as working together in our offices?”  Allowing a free flow of ideas without interruption just might give you insights necessary for designing a new work model that satisfies workers, creates connections, and achieves productivity goals. 

Get buy-in and work together to enact changes. 

One barrier to ideation is that leaders might look at the process as just more busywork.  Cynical employees may feel their ideas are either ignored, unattributed or implemented unilaterally with no process input.  But to build a more intelligent organization that is resilient to change, employees need to be involved in decision-making and implementation processes that impact their tasks.  Unless you have done their job, they are the work expert, not you.  Who better to see evolving trends and improvements in technology, quality, and customer service than line-level employees?  

Therefore, get buy-in and lighten your load by delegating work process improvements.  As a bonus, research shows that leaders who employ participative management empower people to problem-solve, take on greater responsibilities, and experience higher levels of job satisfaction and productivity.  We are all in this together!

Despite shutdowns, layoffs, and dispersed workforces, it is time for employers to begin playing offense.  It starts with a leadership mindset of continually seeking novel ideas about products, processes, and systems, and adopting methods for collecting employee inspirations for evaluation.  It is about creating connectedness, even in a virtual setting, so that serendipity can happen, especially around discovering new ways to get work done.