One of the experiences people miss in distributed teams (compared to collocated teams) is the ability to serendipitously bump into other team members or just other people. They like the idea of having random encounters to share what they did for the weekend or, more importantly, discuss problems they are struggling with at work. Sometimes these problems can be technical. Sometimes these problems can be cultural. Random — serendipitous — interactions help stir their creativity resolving these problems.

In our previous article, we discussed the importance of sufficient hours of overlap in managing a team’s workspace and having sufficient communications technology to support a distributed team. Agile team members support each other throughout the day. They need ways to create informal discussions at the time they have questions, concerns, or challenges.

Consider these questions to support your team’s conversations:

  • What “spaces” can you make available for serendipitious communications?
  • Who is attracted to which spaces and why?
  • What kinds of interactions do you hope for in these spaces?
  • Are any and all team members able to create new, serendipitious space?
  • Are you prepated to be surprised by interactions you never planned for?

Let’s first discuss what we mean by serendipitous communications.

See Examples of Serendipitous Communications

Serendipitous communications are those off-the-cuff questions or small interactions that clear the way for team members to succeed. Some of those seemingly random conversations can also build rapport and camaraderie between team members or across teams.

Dave, a developer on one team, had a problem with the performance of a particular part of the search algorithm. He posted a question on the team’s Slack channel, and he posted a question to the developer community of practice.

The silence was deafening.

A couple of hours later, Tina, a tester on a different team, responded with several suggestions. She’d discovered some of what she called “interesting interactions” with the database in a different part of the product. She’d created some system-level tests to verify the entire product acted in a way that made sense. She offered those tests to Dave, as a way to frame his thinking.

Dave read those tests and realized Tina was onto something. He couldn’t use the tests as-is, but he could adapt them to his needs. He added new tests and discovered enough data to resolve his particular concern. He later explained to his team in the Slack channel what he’d learned from Tina and what the team might do in the future.

In previous lives, Dave and Tina might have had lunch in the cafeteria. Or, met in the coffee area. Here, because they are distributed from each other, they met online.

Create Space for Serendipitous Meetings

In our collocated offices, there are always spaces available for people to gather. It may be a lunchroom, an outside patio, or a walking trail. It could include one or more team members or it may allow opportunities to bump into people you never work with. These spaces outside of normal work can change your frame of mind and allow for different ways to solve problems.

Our online teams need spaces for serendipitous conversations.

Here’s how Dave and Tina’s organization created the environment for people to discover opportunities for serendipity:

The managers and IT had many discussions about tools the teams needed and the security IT wanted to maintain. They agreed on the list of possible applications. In addition, the managers and IT review that list every year, as new possibilities arise. They chose a combination of audio, video, and persistent chat tools.

The managers and Finance had many discussions about the cost of the necessary licenses. Many teams encounter license-availability problems. Dave and Tina’s company decided they would not slow work down, giving the team members access to a sufficient set of team communication tools.

Dave, Tina, and the rest of the organization had basic training on all their communication tools. Some people wanted more training, and they were able to obtain it. Most people only needed the minimum to use the tools for effective communications.

IT set the tools up so that team members could create their own spaces, enabling them to go beyond using only admin-designated spaces.

How many informal places do your team members have available to bounce problems and ideas off of colleagues? For instance, if there is just one chat channel called “engineering,” will a person new to the organization feel safe to ask a question in that channel? Or do you have several communities of practice available based on different technologies that allow for smaller groups? When the tool offers multiple communities, you encourage more people to become recognized experts and others to feel safe asking questions in these spaces.

Every team needs places to discuss work-related problems, such as the question Dave had. And, there might be spaces where people can discuss topics that are not necessarily just work.

It Doesn’t All Have to Be about Work

We know that rich and natural communication help us explain what we mean for the work. And, when we use those same channels to talk about non-work issues, we learn about the humanity of other people. We learn how to build rapport and psychological safety over distance and time.

The more we seek opportunities to learn about each other, the more likely we are to take advantage of serendipitous opportunities to connect when we see each other online. We start to think of others online as “us” and less as “them.”

One company changed their “company” channel (in which very few people posted anything) to “the watercooler.” This change signaled that the channel was open — people could discuss anything.

Not long after the name change, people shared music, vacation photos, and discussed their hobbies and interests. People had more opportunities to know and understand each other. This became even more important when new initiatives and teams were formed as many people had already met at “the watercooler” and they felt comfortable with their new teammates.

Let Team Members Control Their Meeting Spaces

We know of too many teams who are bound by their IT or facilities departments. The team members can’t create new spaces themselves. They file a request with the people who administer the various tools. The teams wait for hours, days, or even weeks, for someone to respond. Too often, the answer is, “No, we won’t create a new channel or space.”

Worse, IT will design to create a meeting space, but it’s temporary. The space expires, even if people are still using it.

In our experience, that reaction causes any of these team reactions:

  • They shift their creativity from ideas they want to discuss to finding a way around the IT policies. It wastes the innovative energy within the organization. The result is some teams move to another, not-official tool and do whatever they want.
  • Some teams live with the limitation and don’t have the conversations they need.
  • Some teams feel they still need the serendipitous conversation space and create their own “under the radar” using unapproved applications.
  • The worst circumstances we’ve seen is when the teams — sometimes as a whole — leave the organization in search of new opportunities.

And unfortunately when people leave, they take time to find new jobs. There’s an unhealthy delay between the proverbial last straw and the actual leaving.

Team members are adults. They want the freedom to select their own tools, within reason. More, they want the freedom to explore. They want the freedom to have some of those serendipitous explorations with colleagues.

Consider the Value of Serendipitous Communication in Your Organization

Dave and Tina were able to exploit their serendipitous communications. They had several options for their initial conversation. They happened to use a chat channel in Slack. Then, they moved to a video meeting tool that allowed them to share their screens.

Dave didn’t expect either to learn about or to use Tina’s tests. He was pleasantly surprised that she triggered other possible ideas for solving his original problem.

We find these questions useful when we think about serendipitous communications:

  • What “spaces” can you make available for serendipitous communications?
  • Who is attracted to which spaces and why?
  • What kinds of interactions do you hope for in these spaces?
  • Are any and all team members able to create new serendipitous space?
  • Are you prepared to be surprised by interactions you never planned for? By allowing flexibility in how people can serendipitously interact and even create communication spaces, you can enable new possibilities for collaboration and even innovation.

A previous version was published in PragPub magazine #120, June 2019 by Mark Kilby and Johanna Rothman.