Home Networking service Chance encounters in the workplace help build confidence – so how do you replicate this online?

Chance encounters in the workplace help build confidence – so how do you replicate this online?


For many of us, we feel like there is no turning back – at least not full time. We were forced to work from home. We worked on it. We don’t want to give up everything.

Yes, there are employers who want everyone to come back to the office. Google, for example, is considering ending its global voluntary work-from-home policy January 10. But other employers are happy to let staff continue to work remotely. Australian software company Atlassian, for its part, insists only that its employees come to the workplace four times a year.

Read more: How many days a week in the office are enough? You shouldn’t need to ask

Studies and polls are consistently clear: most of us don’t think our productivity has been impaired, and those who think so are outweighed by those who think we’re more productive. Importantly, many managers feel the same.

The real sticking point of working from home is not the “work” part. It is the loss of the fun parts of a workplace – informal networking and socializing that are good for the individual as well as the group.

Online socialization experiences

Managers have their reasons for being opposed to teleworking. Beyond the concerns of individual productivity, many studies have shown how proximity promotes communication. For example, when Harvard organizational researchers Ethan Bernstein and Ben Waber reviewed a major US retailer Occupying a campus of more than a dozen buildings, they found that only 10% of all communication took place between employees whose offices were more than 500 meters away.

Over the past 18 months, there have been many experiences of using technology to replicate this communication. I was part of it as an academic, moving all of my teaching online, and another as an organizational consultant, helping a small business move into remote operations.

My client, a small private college TAFE, has 11 permanent employees as well as casuals. In May 2020, the college asked me to help them move all business processes – education, office communications, support services and more – online. This had to be done on a low budget given the financial impact of the pandemic. In this work, we agreed that it was fundamental to meet the need for socialization.

This presented some challenges, especially for a small organization.

The value of “occasional collisions”

Work-based socialization occurs in two general ways.

First, there are “organized” social activities, such as sharing tea in the morning, having lunch or having a drink on Friday evening. To some extent, these aspects are the easiest to simulate, using conferencing applications. For my client, this included activities such as virtual drinks and online games.

It is easier to simulate organized activities such as after-work drinks than the random “occasional collisions” of the physical workplace.

More difficult to reproduce are what the organizational expert Jessica methot and his fellow researchers call it “occasional collisions.” As they wrote in the Harvard Business Review in March:

The information we learn about our coworkers – for example, whether they play guitar or love dogs – build relationships and build trust. Research even suggests that chance encounters and spontaneous conversations with our colleagues can trigger collaboration, improving our creativity, innovation and performance.

One of the best known examples of the design of a workplace for chance encounters is the Headquarters of Pixar Animation Studios, which Steve Jobs oversaw during his exile from Apple. The building has a central atrium with bathrooms only on the ground floor, the idea being to create more opportunities for people to meet.

Conceived for a happy coincidence: the
Conceived for a happy coincidence: the “Steve Jobs Building”, headquarters of the Pixar animation studios.
Grendelkhan / Wikimedia, CC BY

Yet research by Methot and colleagues also shows that gossip can be both uplifting and entertaining. This makes attempts to use software to reproduce this informal and unstructured socialization even more difficult.

Build an online networking space

Seeking to provide staff with an online substitute for the occasional crash and chat in the dining room, we have chosen a “corporate social networking service” called Whine. There are alternatives, each with their own strengths, but Yammer has the advantage of features similar to Facebook. The idea was to provide staff with an intuitive tool to communicate, and then leave it to them to use it as they wish.

It is a work in progress. We have learned some things along the way. One complaint was that we didn’t provide enough up-front training on how to use Yammer’s main options, which meant some staff took the time to enjoy using it.

Read more: After a year of Zoom meetings, we’ll need to restore trust through eye contact

But most of the feedback has been positive. Despite the unforeseen (and therefore chaotic) nature of the move, surveys indicate that most employees believe communication has actually improved. We seem to have avoided remote destructive dialogue and generating distrust, as noted in other workplaces.

Can technology ever completely replace the casual exchanges of a physical workplace? I doubt. But done right, it can provide enough faxing to ensure that there is nothing wrong with staff continuing to work from home a few days a week.