At some level, you know the problem. COVID-19 has switched your world from live to virtual. It turns out there are some nice things about this including savings in commuting and travel time and costs and more efficient meetings. Still, there’s something missing – chance encounters and informal conversations. They’re important over time and need to be deliberately replaced with excuses to contact and scheduled informal conversations.
The Importance of Chance Encounters
Weber, Magnolfi and Lindsay made the point in 2014 that ‘chance encounters and interactions between knowledge workers improve performance.” In particular, “three key elements of successful communication: exploration (interacting with people in many other social groups), engagement (interacting with people within your social group, in reasonably equal doses), and energy (interacting with more people overall).”
They cite one company that ripped out its smaller coffee machines and break spaces, replacing them with coffee machines and spaces that could accommodate 120 people each. “In the quarter after the coffee-and-cafeteria switch, sales rose by 20%, or $200 million, quickly justifying the capital investment in the redesign.”
There are two parts to productivity: efficiency and effectiveness. We’re finding ways to work more efficiently virtually, but sacrificing the effectiveness of live, person-to-person exploration, engagement and energy. There’s an interpersonal connection that happens live and in-person that can never be replicated virtually. And chance encounters don’t happen at all virtually.
By definition, chance encounters happen by chance and are unplanned. Smart workspaces are increasingly designed to encourage and enable those chance encounters. But they’re not happening with people forced to be physically isolated.
Let’s explore two fixes: creating excuses to contact people and scheduling informal conversations.
Excuses to Contact
Instead of waiting to bump into someone by chance virtually – which is never going to happen – find or create an excuse to contact them. In one sense, the excuse doesn’t matter. You’re trying to replace chance encounters. On the other hand, the more meaningful and helpful the excuse is, the better it will be received. You might, for example, contact people to:
Tell or give them something:
- Remind them about something.
- Thank them for doing something nice for you or others.
- Compliment them on something they did.
- Apologize for something you did.
- Offer words of encouragement.
- Offer counsel.
- Share some information or news.
- Share a new idea.
- Share a link to an article or video they may find useful.
- Forward a quote.
Persuade or ask them about something:
- Volunteer to help them.
- Schedule an informal conversation.
- Ask them to connect you to someone else.
Just test things:
- Check in on them.
- Connect on Twitter or LinkedIn, follow their blog.
Consult with them:
- Ask a question.
- Ask for help.
- Ask their opinion.
- Brainstorm an idea.
That’s just a starter list. While you can’t bump into people by chance when you’re quarantined, you can bump into an excuse to contact others. Be open to those excuses. Leverage them.
Scheduled Informal Conversations
The suggestion here is not to replace formal meetings with informal conversations – though in a lot of cases, that’s also a good idea. This is about replacing chance encounters that begin with things like,
“So glad I bumped into you. Been wanting your views on…”
“Do you have a few minutes after our meeting?”
”Let’s walk out together….”
“Which way are you heading? I’ll detour with you.”
Those only happen if you’re in the same physical space. If you’re not, be proactive. Schedule virtual office hours so people can drop by. Reach out to the people to make the time for conversations.
You don’t really need an objective, agenda, or a lot of time.
What you do need is to have conversations that build relationships with people in your social group, in other social groups, and with more people overall.
Schedule the conversations. But don’t over-plan them. Let them flow so that you and the people you are conversing with can explore ideas together, interact with each other and feed off each other’s energies.
You might, for example, think about the ten most important people you want to have ongoing interactions with them. Each day, find an excuse to contact one of them or have an informal conversation with them. Go through the list one person per day. Then, start over.