It takes 66 days to form a habit. A simple calculation indicates that by now, after over 90 days of collaboration via Zoom, your team has cemented a new habit: working from home. Whether you’re planning to go back and activate your office life as before, or you’ve decided the post social distancing work environment will remain partly remote, you’ll have to factor in this new habit and either break or nurture it.
To everyone’s surprise, this socially-distanced way of working has been so effective that the tech world, led by the likes of Twitter, Google, and Facebook, is making it semi-permanent. It isn’t hard to see why. People remained as productive as before and nobody needed babysitting to ensure they performed when in their cozy PJs. It seems like these companies got the best deal ever: lower office costs, no time wasted commuting, tens of millions saved by not serving free office meals, and the same productivity. Right?
Not so fast
Last week ZDNet published an article by Tiernan Ray (Steve Jobs said Silicon Valley needs serendipity, but is it even possible in a Zoom world?) which questions how innovation will fare in this brave new world of remote work where ‘chance encounters’ will happen less often. The point behind this concern is well summarized in the opening:
“The late Steve Jobs told his biographer, Walter Isaacson, that when he commissioned the headquarters for the animated film studio Pixar, in East Bay, Jobs made sure it was an open structure, where everything converged on an atrium. Jobs believed, as Isaacson described it, that creativity is a result of serendipity. Serendipity is the specific word he used, and to Jobs, it meant in-person meetings. Jobs wanted the workplace to be optimally conducive to creating those chance encounters.”
‘Chance encounters,’ which lead to the serendipitous interaction that results in new ideas, stronger connections, and informal learning, are not possible on your way from your cozy desk to your kitchen. This means that the good productivity we’ve all experienced may not be the whole story. The lack – or significant reduction – of these informal connections and learning at work, which leads to innovation in the long run, will be felt much later, when it could be fatal for companies that depend on it, read: all Silicon Valley, as the ZDNet article rightly indicates.
Informal learning at a distance
At work, most learning is informal. It is the result of these ‘chance encounters’ Steve Jobs was referring to. Think about it: a colleague who takes time to show you how to present better, a piece of advice you hear in the hallway, an informal talk about coding tips in the cafeteria. Add these small things up and you get to accumulate much more knowledge than through any formal onboarding classes and programs.
Just as you’ve cemented a new habit when it comes to how you collaborate with your team to get things done, you can be intentional and create another one for your team to keep serendipitous learning alive. You can achieve this by using a mix of deliberate actions and technology to stimulate ‘chance encounters’ while you sort what the new world will look like for your people …unless you think Zoom can keep you learning from each other.
Here are 3 easy actions you can take to keep your team in the know:
1. Carve out daily time for open screens, not meetings
The ZDNet article writes about how Tim Cabral, CFO of Veeva Systems, has created ‘open door hours’ twice a day by keeping his Zoom open so that anybody can come in and talk about anything without scheduling a meeting. I’d advise you to go further and have your entire team do this so that everybody can ‘drop-by’ serendipitously. Better still, gamify it: have your team report on how many of these intentional ‘Zoom-bombing’ encounters they had every week.
2. Choreograph remote activities that stimulate informal knowledge transfer
As you may have noticed, things like presenting a deck via Zoom are trickier than in person because they require a bit more choreography, as you do not have the benefit of instant feedback via body language. Informal learning needs also to be choreographed for it to happen. There are hundreds of tools online that you can use to have your team teach and learn at a distance. There is a school in Sweden called Hyperisland where kids have been forced, by design, to come up with tools to engage. Many of them can be applied remotely. Check them out here.
3. Implement new tech platforms that create tribe and community
Zoom was designed for meetings. Slack was designed for fast communications. Workplace was designed for group updates. Although you can adapt any of these tools for informal teaching and learning, they require workarounds and will not get you there elegantly. Just like Steve Jobs did with his Pixar HQs, the ancient Greeks deliberately created open spaces that stimulated informal transfer of knowledge called Agora. You can emulate this, quite easily, by using platforms like PlusPlus where your team can find ways to teach and learn without hassle, or other ones (not so easily) where your people can informally create tribe and connect through sharing knowledge.
Whatever you do, keep in mind that most learning at work is the result of small incremental knowledge from peers, rather than a handful of big events. Ensure your team stays in the know remotely by being intentional about it. Serendipity will not happen at a distance unless it gets a little push from you …before the habit of not learning from each other informally takes hold.
Photo by: Christopher Michel