The next generation of tools to enhance serendipity in remote work environments


The greatest value of people working in organizations is not having them act as cogs in a machine, but in interacting to spawn ideas and insights that generate new opportunities.

I have long explored the value of serendipity in work environments, and in particular how we can ‘enhance’ serendipity to make happy, fortuitous connections between people and ideas more likely.

In a world of remote work, often dominated by scheduled video meetings, serendipitous connections are far harder to come by.

A recent Wall Street Journal article examines some of the tools being used to mimic the accidental conversations around the office water cooler.

“Ever since the coronavirus pandemic struck and the work world went remote, there has been a giant hole where face-to-face interactions used to be. When co-workers can’t see each other, it is more than just a potential morale issue. Proximity and serendipitous encounters have long been associated with increased collaboration and innovation.

So employers are looking to replace their whiteboards and coffee stations with digital products and services that attempt to mimic virtually what we are missing out on in person. Businesses that were at the forefront of remote-work solutions when the pandemic hit found themselves winning a lottery of sorts. But replacing in-person connections is hard, and it will only get harder as some—though probably not all—workers return to the office.”

The article runs through a variety of interesting software applications that aim to provide a solution to this challenge.

Donut uses Slack and calendars to schedule brief calls to introduce workers in different parts of the organization, or sometimes to prompt pairs of people to speak regularly.

Hallway posts links to 10 minute group video chats every couple of hours, replicating conversations in the hallways of office blocks.

Miro is a prominent whiteboarding application that makes meetings more interactive, using virtual sticky notes and tools to help focus attention. 

Qube is an avatar-based virtual world with meeting rooms, common areas, whiteboards and other work tools, in which avatars have blocks for heads so people don’t focus on appearance.

Sidekick is an always-on video tablet, allowing co-workers to see what you’re doing and interrupt you if you allow it, mimicking interactions in an office environment.

This is just scratching the surface and the beginning of what I expect to be a wave of technologies to enable collaboration within and beyond organizations, in a world that will be dominated by remote work for years to come.