LF: spontaneity and serendipity

Ioana Finichiu

As the weeks roll into months since our routine was put on hold and we started adapting to social/physical distancing and remote work, I see signs of increasing restlessness and search for connections we were able to (more easily) make in a pre-COVID world.

These days, despite the many tools available to help us stay connected 24/7, conversations seem to be transactional and mostly limited to our daily work bubbles. Gone are the days where you could run into an acquaintance at a coffee shop between meetings, catch up on your respective work and learn about new projects and potential connections. Gone also the opportunities to linger after a particularly invigorating conference talk to exchange with the speaker, or the hallway chit-chat between sessions, often equally as impactful as anything heard in a formal setting.

I hear people say they are eager to return to the office and how they crave the daily exchanges with peers. Some folks would benefit from going to a physical office environment, where the temperature is comfortable, where dedicated ergonomic work spaces are available, and distractions from combining home and work life are less intrusive. More often, though, people cite spontaneous human interaction as a reason for wanting to return to office spaces.

But in a world where a simple run to the convenience store requires planning and a checklist of items to bring, is there really still such a thing as spontaneous interaction? Or do we have to get creative and intentional about creating new spaces for this to happen?

Return-to-occupancy plans attempt to spell out a new normal with anywhere between 15 to 60% occupancy rates. In reality, what that looks like will be wildly different in every city and even for every organization. What is to become of the ‘elevator pitch’ if only one person may ride in an elevator at a time? Randomly running into a colleague from another work area? Highly unlikely – what is likely to happen is you both book the same office time slot and agree to meet up. We are far from spontaneous team huddles and team meetings where 12 people squeeze into a small boardroom, and even farther from hundreds (or thousands) of people milling around an industry conference, exchanging ideas, contact info, and sketching plans for collaboration. Shaking hands to seal the deal is practically vintage now.

Where does that leave the (largely unsatisfied) need for networking, netweaving, and connecting with others for yet-to-be-discovered common schemes? How about the folks who rely on these connections to find a job or expand their knowledge? Will we enter a creative vacuum as our growth and perspective become limited by the bubbles we already belong to?

In a world designed to minimize physical interaction, how do we satisfy our craving for spontaneous, on-the-fly exchanges and seemingly random path-crossing? In other words, how do we add serendipity and spontaneity into meticulously orchestrated physical interactions designed to keep us safe? It is, indeed, a brave new (planners’) world.