There is something magical about a chance encounter. The occurrence of events by chance or good fortune has been the fodder for many a good storyline in Hollywood, some more memorable than others. Everyone knows the classic line from Casablanca ‘of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine’; whereas few may have seen the John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale romcom “Serendipity” that was quickly relegated to holiday viewing only due to its cheesiness.
The word ‘serendipity’ has a romantic and fantastical connotation that has us hooked. It’s not just Hollywood that is in search of serendipity. Our offices and workspaces are now seeking to find the elusive design ingredients that, when manifested in a physical space, generate serendipitous interaction and creative sparks that fuel innovation.
But what happens to such fortuitous encounters when everyone is under some form of house arrest?
The significance of serendipity
History shows that some of the best ideas came from chance interactions . Take the famous “Post-it” note. Two 3M colleagues minding their own business. One excited about his discovery of microspheres which retain stickiness while having removable characteristics, the other one frustrated with the scraps of paper he used for bookmarks that kept falling out of his church choir songbook. That’s the beauty of serendipity: an unusual, unforeseen connection arising from an unlikely place.
Humans are, generally, pack animals. We crave social interaction, whether that is digital or physical. Just look at the explosion of chat rooms and social media as evidence of our need to interact. We crave spaces for the coming together of minds to solve problems, unravel the meaning of life and share epiphanies, and whether by luck or fortuitous planning, history is littered with examples of these shared areas.
Curious thinkers have always gravitated towards each other. The Romans had their curiae or meeting houses, Hyde Park has Speakers’ Corner, friends and family have the kitchen table. Co-workers used to have the water cooler. And then one morning, we woke up to find that someone, or something, has moved the water cooler. In this new environment where there is likely to be a blended mix of people working remotely for some tasks and at a socially distanced central office for the foreseeable future, what can we learn from creating spaces that can still facilitate chances for magic interaction and what will this mean for the evolution of the workspace post COVID-19?
Serendipity, spontaneity and curiosity are not terms normally associated with the design of spaces. A typical design brief will talk about hard physical features that a space must have, such as access to natural light and outdoor air, and it’s only been recently that designers have attempted to design spaces where innovation and creativity can flourish. Our offices are now intentionally trying to create spaces that enhance the possibility of a chance interaction . ‘Intentional serendipity’ seems to be an oxymoron; however, it is the elusive elixir in the pursuit of that holy grail for all businesses that we know fuels growth and profit – innovation.
Up until 10 years ago, an office was just an office. We transitioned through the trends of cellular to open-plan offices to allow more interaction between folks. In reality, what we were doing was cramming more people into a smaller space. Agile working and hot desking became the new buzzwords which saw the square metre per person reduced even further but, in return, generated improved amenity and breakout spaces for optimal collaboration.
COVID-19 is going to throw that thinking out for a while until a vaccine is found.
We now can’t sit beside each other in tight spaces and the density that so many offices have been built on is now being thrown into turmoil. Will the forced spreading out of teams mean that we can’t work in the same configurations as before and hence, some folk have no option but to work from home? Can we squeeze into a lift cheek to jowl like we used to when there is a 4 sqm rule – will the office peak time suddenly become signalled by a queue of people waiting to take the lift?
Will this put a halt on the ever-increasing high rise? What liability will employers and building owners have for the health and safety of workers in their buildings with a duty of care for well-being?
Could going backwards move us forward?
The benefits of open-plan offices have long been contested, with many studies finding the massive distraction they create outweighs any benefits from collaboration or spontaneous interaction. Bell Labs is renowned for creating one of the first open-plan offices, throwing scientists and engineers together in the same room, featuring long hallways between rooms that forced interactions between workers. It’s no surprise that organisations rushed to emulate similar designs given the astounding array of innovation that stemmed from Bell Labs, considered the most innovative scientific organisation in the world for a long stretch in the 20th century.
However, given the countless counter-arguments against open-plan offices and much anecdotal evidence that working remotely is improving productivity despite COVID-19, could a balanced approach of working a mix of hours from home and some in an office when you need to collaborate progress us further forward?
Art not science
Let us not forget that Google credits chance encounters responsible for creating Gmail and Street View.
For now, we are heading inside and online for inspiration and camaraderie in our COVID-19 world. Digital forums have long allowed for discussions on mutual interests, problems and sharing of ideas. It has enabled couples to fall in love, and led to the extremely serendipitous development of Elon Musk betting Atlassian’s Mike-Cannon Brookes that Tesla could build the world’s biggest battery after coming across a Tweet.
The ingredients required to create serendipitous interaction could be considered in a similar vein to Kentucky Fried Chicken or Coca-Cola. As in, it’s a secret recipe that we’re all still trying to figure out what the magic ingredients are. The notion of serendipitous interaction in a physical environment can be difficult to convert from its idea into a physical layout – some get it right, for example Steve Jobs famously designed the Pixar headquarters with central bathrooms so that people from around the company would run into each other. Others get it wrong.
Owners and designers of office buildings are now faced with a conundrum that can’t be solved with physical buildings alone. Just as COVID-19 is creating new jobs (social distancing consultants and in-flight janitors anyone?), we’ll need to see the term ‘space’ as not just a physical one but a new interpretation that blends the physical with the digital in an entirely new work domain. While Casablanca’s Rick and Ilsa always had Paris, we’ll always have COVID-19 to credit for pushing us to explore a new way of working in the digital age and discovering the ‘office of the future’.