Fostering Casual Collisions — and Creativity — in a Virtual World

Editor's note: This post is part of our ongoing exploration of how design is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The chance encounter is a cornerstone of any company looking to foster creative and innovative workplace environments, and this is especially true in the tech world. That’s because we know that some of the best ideas and discussions happen spontaneously — in the lunch line or waiting for the elevator — rather than in a conference room.

Now that many of us have shifted to working 100% virtually, how do we continue to create opportunities for serendipity and casual interactions that spark ideas and random discussions? And going forward, when we do return to our workplaces, how will we enable casual collisions when people will still be exercising the practice of physical distancing?

A recent survey found 45% of workers believe that work life will be interrupted, and 79% expect changes will be implemented in their offices as a result of the pandemic, as well as in the policies that guide their workplace experiences. What etiquettes will be in place for us to ‘bump’ into each other at the office — even from six feet away?

Designing workplaces to encourage unplanned interactions involves factors like measuring distances between various areas, accounting for rotations in food areas, and timing walks, elevator waits and lunch line surges. But with a massive shift underway in how we work together, we’ll have to approach design and planning differently for when we get back to the office.

In the short term, we can build upon what we already know about casual collisions in physical spaces to apply best practices online, form new habits for connecting, and use digital meeting platforms to enhance our virtual workplace experiences. Here are a few ideas:

Variety and choice broaden social networks

Gensler’s U.S. Workplace Survey 2020 found that workplaces that accommodate different types of work and offer more choice provide the best experience for employees. Similarly, it’s key to offer access to a variety of communication and collaboration apps and software in order to give employees choice in where and how they work virtually. This also allows companies to provide a wide range of opportunities for employees to have chance encounters that can encourage idea sharing or simply boost camaraderie. Employers can encourage interactions between diverse cross-sections of team members by leveraging platform features like virtual meeting rooms, groups, and chats.

Apply the coworking model in the virtual realm

One of the most cited benefits of coworking is the ability to connect with people you wouldn’t typically meet. In other words, coworking is all about casual collisions. Companies should think outside of their own business and explore new ways to invite and interact with external audiences by hosting live chats on social media, for example, to support sharing ideas and fostering unexpected connections in a virtual environment.

Take advantage of non-standard work hours

The autonomy that virtual work provides will naturally increase random interactions because people are no longer tied to traditionally structured 40-hour work weeks. People can work when it best suits them. This means that there is an increase in what Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh calls, “collisionable hours,” or, the hours in a day when people have the chance to randomly bump into each other.

More people working at different times of the day across the globe means that employees might not necessarily be working at the same time as their own teammates, but instead, with people in completely different roles who just happen to have similar schedules. That’s why it’s important to make virtual video conferencing software and collaboration tools available 24/7 and to brainstorm ways to engage team members outside of normal business hours.

Use a randomized buddy system

Since we can’t casually run into each other around the office, a more planned approach can be helpful. Just as we’re able to influence chance interactions when designing spaces, companies can proactively pair employee “buddies” at random in a chatroom. This is more of an orchestrated approach, but it has the same result: bringing people together who wouldn’t ordinarily interact to connect in a more intimate setting and share perspectives on work, life, and anything that’s top of mind.

Schedule conversation starters

Another way to nudge people outside of their typical social circles while working remotely is by sending daily company-wide prompts to get employees chatting about topics outside of work like movies, self-care routines, recipes, the latest Tik Tok video, etc. Conversing with teammates about something other than work can ease stress and lead to the discovery of unexpected shared interests. These simple social prompts can evolve into a cross-pollination of ideas.

Can artificial intelligence help create casual collisions?

As we continue to work virtually using digital collaboration platforms in place of our physical offices, the question becomes, can our typical workday experiences — like casual collisions — be replicated in the virtual world with AI? Will there be a day when employers use predictive algorithms to help us incorporate casual collisions into our virtual lives?

Just as tech platforms like Skype or Facebook can notify you when someone you know is online or suggest friends based on what an algorithm depicts about you, it’s possible that in the future we’ll see similar instances of AI being used to match us with people in a more randomized way with the intent of creating unexpected interactions.

One could argue that the spontaneity and delight of casual encounters is needed now more than ever. The rise of the concept of “alone together” doesn’t mean that we’re not still seeking connection. In fact, in the face of this pandemic, we’re seeing an increase in generosity, empathy, and authenticity in our online worlds. Just as spaces that are thoughtfully designed to promote exploration and community increase the likelihood of casual collisions, our virtual workspaces can benefit from this overarching approach. The goal is ultimately the same — to encourage more interaction and engagement between people. It is only human for us to continue to crave and find opportunities for spontaneous interactions. “Colliding” in community teams through timed virtual meetups and chats is the new norm, but it’s one that still offers a way for us to gather, connect, and share ideas together.

Refining the design of the workplace for wellness

In the long term, the impact of the pandemic will likely have a lasting effect on how people gather at work. Many of these newly learned forms of digitally “colliding” will likely continue to be popular ways of connecting.

This time of physical distancing has made people realize how much they miss human contact and spontaneous interactions with diverse groups of people. We’ll need to rethink ways to create offices where these interactions can happen in spaces that are strategically designed to avoid overcrowding.

When we return to the office, employees will likely opt for more isolated workplace environments, avoiding outside coworking locations, and relying on coworking within their own campus, where they can trust how spaces are being cleaned each day.

Only time will tell all the ways we will need to refine the future design of workspaces to implement physical distancing and prevent viral transmission, but there will likely be new workstyles and etiquette around casual collisions that will alter the trajectory of the future of work as we know it.

For any media inquiries, please contact Kimberly Beals at .

Natalie Engels
Natalie leads Gensler’s team focused on designing workplaces for technology companies, and is a principal at the firm. Over a 20-year career, she has worked with clients such as Adobe, Palo Alto Networks, Hewlett-Packard, and Amazon. Natalie is based in San Jose. Contact her at .
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