Reintroducing random: The benefits of casual chats and unscheduled input

How not to miss out on casual chats when you're working from home.

By Liz Doig

An article this week caught our eye: Why serendipitous interactions in the office make us feel productive. The gist of it is this – office workers are feeling a bit stale now because they’re only having planned conversations with colleagues.

This means that:

  • They don’t get random sparks of inspiration that a quick “hello” in a corridor can provide
  • And they’re missing just leaning across to a colleague and saying: “Hey, what do you think of this?”

Instead, the article suggests, they’re sitting at their kitchen table, staring at a laptop screen, less able to find the creative insight that will unleash brilliant work.

Creativity does take collaboration

It’s true that collaboration is a great ingredient of creativity. In our Creative Boost workshops, we talk about the myth that creativity is something that’s bestowed on limited numbers of people as a “gift”. The artist isn’t full of ideas because she works in a lonely garret, separated from the world. She’s full of ideas because she feeds her imagination (and then heads off somewhere quiet to create).

And for office workers, part of feeding the imagination is probably from random, unscheduled conversations.

But what’s to stop you doing it remotely?

“Collaboration” is one of many words that – especially of late – is more associated with the means of achieving a task, rather than the act of doing it. Ask a company if they’re working together on a project and you’ll often get the response: “Yes, we have Google Hangouts,” or whichever other software they’re using.

But of course the technology is just a means to meet up. It doesn’t guarantee (however many nice tools it incorporates) that the people who meet online will do anything but tread old ground.

The missing element – we think – isn’t the collaboration. It’s the unscripted, unscheduled and random. That snippet of conversation with your friend from 5-aside who says: “Well if it was an audit, we’d do this…” Or with the chap who runs the coffee stand and tells you what he wishes people wouldn’t do while they’re waiting in line… Or the man on reception who tells you about his Koi carp collection…

So how do you make sure that random is still happening in your remote working life? Here are some ideas…

Embrace small talk

If you think small talk is just about greasing the social wheels, you’re only getting some of the picture. Asking people about their weekends, the weather, their kids, their garden does more than show friendliness. It finds things out.

For almost a decade, I worked as a newspaper reporter, and then as a features writer. Time after time, the real story didn’t become apparent through responses to any carefully-crafted list of questions. It emerged instead through chat. People give you incredible insight into different cultures, events, ways of life and experiences if you pick up the right thread of conversation. And I can guarantee you won’t find that thread if you stick rigidly to an agenda – and only meet for a defined purpose.

Regular check-ins are important. Spending five or ten minutes talking to someone about the difficulty they had choosing a care home for Grandma or how they spent the weekend hand-sewing a dog coat for their chihuahua isn’t just a nice thing to do (and that will make you more approachable and your colleagues more willing to share thoughts and ideas). It also feeds your imagination – and it gives you a Rolodex of in-house specialists, should that brief for Koi carp pond installation tools ever cross your desk, or if you ever need to better understand the audit process.

Hold internal networking sessions

In larger organisations, it’s unlikely that you’ll know all your colleagues or ever talk to them. They may be in offices miles – or even continents – away. And even if prior to 2020 you saw them every day in the canteen, it doesn’t mean that you’d ever have done more than share a smile and a nod.

So here’s an idea. Get people across your organisation to sign up to virtual, internal networking sessions. Bring everyone together on Zoom (or your preferred platform) and send 2-3 people at a time off into virtual rooms to chat to one-another, speed-dating style.

For extra diversity, you could bring your suppliers into the mix too (believe me, they are not going to say no – and chatting with external people could help bring new ideas into your organisation). 

Hold a half-hour session once a week and make sure everyone attends at least once a month. This could be an HR-owned activity – or an R&D-owned activity. And you could track and measure the benefits of it in qualitative surveys.

Have virtual coffee breaks

One of our favourite, long-time, clients is Vlerick Business School. Their marketing team has been working virtually since April. But they regularly get together online with coffee and cake, simply to catch up.

It’s an important way for the team to keep in touch with one another – and it also provides informal channels for loose discussions that cover a multitude of topics. It’s part of a whole attitude that has seen the school adapt rapidly as conditions have changed throughout this year – and continue to offer vibrant, immersive, online teaching. (Seriously, if you want to gain new skills or insights into better ways of working on everything from negotiating to digital transformation, you should check out their programmes.)

In Wordtree’s small team, we just buzz one another regularly. We drop an email saying: “Have you got 10 mins? I just want to see what you think about X…” Then we hop on Zoom, small talk, look at the subject, chat a bit and hang up.

Sometimes, we even just keep Zoom open so that we’re working alongside each other, as we would have done in the studio.

What remote working has done for many office workers is to show us just how much of the time we spend talking to one another. But the reaction to this shouldn’t be: Well, let’s clamp down on this frivolous talking activity and become more productive. Instead, we just need to realise that as social, creative animals, we need to be social to be creative. 

The trick is not to over-formalise. Just drop your colleague a note at 10.45am and say: “Want to have a brew and a chat?” Log on, catch-up – and then get back to it.

Creative sharing sessions – or brainstorming

These can be tricky in the real world, as well as online. But actually, we think technology can make creative sharing more inclusive and less hierarchical.

Back in the days when brainstorming happened around a table, you might have had a couple of dominant voices and other people who didn’t (or felt they couldn’t) contribute so much. With virtual rooms, however, it’s really easy to mix people in different groups – and to get them to set out their ideas on virtual whiteboards and the like.

For ideas, you can read our thoughts on how to prepare for a brand naming brainstorm here.

Get offline

It’s tempting to think of a screen as your go-to source of information and input. But if it’s your only source of ideas, then your inspiration will dry up pretty quickly.

Your brain wants to be entertained. It wants variety. So replicate that experience of walking down a corridor at work or going to the canteen or Pret – and go for a walk. If you’ve got a garden, go for a five-minute blast of fresh air. Talk to your neighbour. 

Take a break, pick up a book you’ve been meaning to read for ages – or go buy a magazine you wouldn’t normally read. Drink it all in and let it settle in your mind. Will all this input be immediately useful? Some will, some may not re-surface in your brain for another couple of years – if ever.

Walking will be immediately useful. It’s stress-relieving and gives us different things to look at. This relaxation – and, we suspect, the fact that no-one’s judging your thinking – seems to have the effect of diverting our minds away from purposeful  (or System 2, if you love a bit of Kahneman) thinking. Instead, your mind free-wheels and in doing so, can happen upon squirreled-away nuggets of ideas. It’s why people have great ideas when they’re in the shower.

In a productivity-obsessed world, taking breaks and just taking a little time to do very little, can feel wrong. In an office, many people build these little breaks into their day intuitively – but build a rationale that makes them seem more purposeful. “I’m going to get a coffee,” rather than, “My brain needs a little mooching around time.” And now we’re working from home and the trip to get a coffee is two minutes instead of ten or 15, some of our brains aren’t getting the daydreaming, free-wheeling time they need. So potter. Stick your out of office on for 20 minutes, have a mooch – and then get back at it.

It’s not just about quality of work

If we’ve only learned one thing this year, it should be that life – and the things we take for granted – can be fragile. If you’re feeling stymied or uncreative, then life – and your job – can become a drag. Don’t let it be. Give yourself the breaks you need, recognise the stimulus you need – and keep in touch with colleagues. And don’t fall into the trap of thinking that formal meetings are the only productive ways to catch up.

And if you have any ideas to share about happier, more productive and creative working from home, please let us know .