Serendipity, chance encounters and unplanned contact

By Hannah Mellow on 13 January 2015

If you are interested in workplaces and how spatial design can influence business performance, you will quickly come across various opinions and buzzwords relating to the way people meet each other in the workplace, and how that supports creativity and innovation. Most recently for example, Gensler blogged about the relative value of chance encounters and a more planned creative process.

Buzzwords such as ‘serendipity’ or ‘chance encounters’ abound in the workplace community and while it can be helpful sometimes to refer to these buzzwords to frame a topic or to allow people to make a link to something they might have heard elsewhere, more often than not it adds to the confusion of everyone involved. So what do those terms actually mean?

Serendipity

The dictionary defines serendipity as ‘luck that takes the form of finding valuable or pleasant things that are not looked for’. In the context of work, this is often used to describe the process of generating new ideas by finding useful people and information that you didn’t know you would find useful. It relates to a common problem in knowledge management: how do you find the people with the right knowledge to create the next big thing (or solve a complex problem). This was famously expressed by Lew Platt, former CEO of Hewlett and Packard, who is quoted saying: “If only HP knew what HP knows, we would be three times more productive.”

Chance encounters

Chance encounters essentially describe the same phenomenon as serendipity, yet the phrase includes two important ingredients: chance, i.e. the luck that serendipity as a phrase entails as well and the actual encounter, i.e. two people bumping into each other. This is often used in the workplace context, since it points to the physical environment in which this encounter happens. Photocopiers and water-coolers often feature as the locations where chance encounters supposedly flourish, but also corridors are often quoted, not the least because Steve Jobs said so.

The recent blog comment by Gensler took up this topic and argued that innovative companies shouldn’t put too much focus on chance encounters, since the actual chances that innovation will spring from that are minimal – comparable to winning the lottery. This is a really good point, however, the blog then argues that in order to foster innovation, companies should focus on “a deliberately creative, planned process versus random run-ins.” There’s nothing wrong with providing great spaces for planned meetings, but by positioning planned as the opposite of chance encounters, the blog conflates categories and adds to the general buzzword confusion. There are not only chance encounters, there is also unplanned contact.

Unplanned contact

If two people interact in a spontaneous way without having planned a conversation in advance, we speak of unplanned contact. This is different from serendipity or chance encounters, since the people interacting normally know each other. They might be close collaborators, come from the same or different departments, or maybe they just know each other distantly. Possibly they don’t know each other at all (which would make it a chance encounter), but this is really rare and people typically don’t strike up conversations with strangers, even if they prepare their cup of tea alongside you. We should also take into account that roughly half of the population are considered introverts, who would shudder at the thought of having to chat to someone they don’t know, so indeed, chance encounters are a rare phenomenon.

Spacelab_Wenlock_Rd_5.jpg

Unplanned contact at the teapoint: office designed (and inhabited) by Spacelab

However, opposed to the Gensler blog which argued for a planned process, we believe that designing spaces for unplanned contact is absolutely crucial. Our evidence supports this.

In four different workplaces across different industries (two medium sized ones with around 250 staff, and two large ones with around 1000 staff) we found through staff surveys that the majority of face-to-face contact occurs in an unplanned way. The exact split between planned and unplanned varies slightly with 65% unplanned contact in a media company, 68% in a university, 70% in a law firm and 72% of unplanned contact in an advertising agency. The data highlights the overarching and consistent importance of unplanned contact in workplaces.

Therefore it is key to think about the spatial design of workplaces that allow for unplanned face-to-face contact to flourish.

Topics: workplace, collaboration, interaction, serendipity, encounters, design, unplanned