How to create planned spontaneity in a hybrid work environment

Detractors of remote and hybrid work models worry about missing spontaneous collaboration. With some thought, these moments can be actively created.

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Image: iStock / monkeybusinessimages

Perhaps the most significant change to the way we work around the globe in the last 18 months has been definitive, irrevocable proof that many organizations can not only function but thrive in a remote working environment. For years, concerns about productivity were drivers for many companies to limit remote working to a few people or functions, or treat it as a special circumstance for employees who were willing to plead their own cases.

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Now that productivity is no longer a valid concern in a remote environment, some leaders are citing culture and some variation of spontaneous collaborative moments as justification for returning to in-person work for employees that have primarily been remote. With regards to the latter, the idea is that by having the majority of employees in the same physical space, there's a higher likelihood that people will bump into each other in the halls or at the coffee pot, and strike up a conversation that ultimately results in a game-changing innovation or breakthroughs.

There's a certain logic and validity to an assumption that putting a large group of individuals together in the same space will result in fortuitous interactions. However, expending the energy and time to assemble people merely for random interactions is much like the internet business models of the early 2000s, which started with something like "If just 1% of consumers visit our website … ." In both cases, the primary strategy employed is little more than hope.

Rely on planning rather than randomness

Few companies would make sheer randomness the cornerstone of critical areas like collaboration, innovation and problem-solving, so it's surprising that it's cited as a primary driver for bringing everyone back into the office.

Interpersonal interaction certainly tends to create more collaborative moments than existing solely in the digital worlds of Zoom and Slack, but it can and should be actively fostered and created. Consider for a moment the last in-person industry event or conference you attended. You probably met and interacted with dozens of vendors, colleagues at other companies, academics and generally interesting people who were open and interested in conversations with you, all over a day or two.

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This was not due to some happy accident, but the fact that all of you were physically present in the same space, for a short duration, with a stated objective of meeting and collaborating. Imagine for a moment if your organization replaced industry conferences with a mandate that you had to hang around at the local coffee shop or bar for eight hours every Monday through Friday, on the off chance that you'd meet someone who would become a valuable contact. You'd likely throw the person out of your office once you got done laughing, yet suggesting that your teams spend every workday in the office for "spontaneous collaboration" is essentially the same request.

Facilitate the collaboration

Like a conference or industry networking event, you can also plan "collaboration days" within your company. Leaders in other divisions are certain to be equally interested in getting a mix of technology, marketing, product and operations people in the same space for the purposes of spontaneous collaboration. Like the simple act of making networking a stated objective, with dedicated time during industry conferences, you can schedule a Collaboration Day with the same intent.

To do this, follow the template of your favorite industry conference. Include a variety of agenda items ranging from keynote speeches on a topic that's broadly interesting or inspirational, to mini-workshops presented by people from various teams on topics that might be of interest to others. Include informal or facilitated networking events, perhaps with a meal or drinks to create a festive environment where people arrive to engage with their peers versus merely "showing up."

If you and other company leaders already have a list of complex problems requiring cross-company collaboration, you might even do a simple ideation content. Create several groups with representatives from each function to spend an hour on a problem, and then award the group with the best solution.

Once you develop an agenda that works, you can hold quarterly sessions and adjust the content within a template, simplifying planning and execution. Unlike a conference, these sessions need not be held at elaborate locations or be a costly endeavor. Some simple planning and communication will set the tone for the day and create an event that people look forward to and come to mentally prepared for collaboration.

Workers around the globe have already proven that they can be successful and often prefer executing the day-to-day from their homes. Instead of bringing them into the office for chance encounters, make a trip to the office a thoughtfully planned event focused on collaboration. Not only will you keep your teams happy and productive, but you might also be surprised that you can create more spontaneous collaboration with less time in the office.

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By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a leading global professional services firm, where he helps companies rapidly invent and launch new businesses. He is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companio...