Ways to improve interactions among employees…

Ways to improve interactions among employees…

By: Donna Metallic As we start to program work spaces, is there really a theory to our madness?  Well of course there is!  There are many layers that have to be looked at especially on how to improve communication among the diverse work force. “The Science of Serendipity in the Workplace.” Below are a few excerpts from the Wall Street Journal article shared by Nancy Ramsey of Herman Miller that highlight a few approaches…review the information and let me know which one you think would work in your environment. Companies aren’t leaving serendipity to chance. Firms are thinking up new ways to encourage interactions among employees who normally don’t work with each other. The hope is that these casual face-to-face chats among people with different skills might spark new ideas, lead to new solutions or at the least, increase workplace camaraderie. To make those connections happen, some firms are taking a scientific approach—collecting and analyzing data about their teams and mathematically computing the likelihood that employees will meet.  Sounds like the theory from the movie, “Moneyball” to me! In some instances, they are squeezing workers into smaller spaces so they are more likely to bump into each other. In others, they are installing playful prompts, like trivia games, to get workers talking in traditional conversational dead zones, such as elevators. But despite all the buzz around serendipity—several panels at the popular tech conference South by Southwest Interactive discussed the topic—it is hard to know for sure whether any of these efforts really work. The real challenge, companies and workplace scholars say, isn’t merely connecting workers with their colleagues so much as it is connecting them with the right ones. “The most productive relationships are difficult to engineer,” says Jason Owen-Smith, a University of Michigan sociologist who studies employee collaboration. Google’s new headquarters has an unusual feature: Every worker within the 1.1 million-square-foot, multilevel complex is expected to be within a 2½ minute walk from each other. The firm and its architect, NBBJ, looked at how fast people can walk and measured the diameter of the space from multiple angles. (An “infinity-loop”-shaped pathway slopes through the building, connecting employees to each other.) In addition, the floor plan is narrower than typical offices, keeping teams in sight range of one another. Studies have found that having colleagues work in close proximity to each other does correlate with increased collaboration. Researchers at the University of Michigan studying 172 research scientists recently found that when the scientists shared the same buildings and overlapped in their daily workplace walking patterns—moving between lab space, office space, and the nearest bathroom and elevator—they were significantly more likely to collaborate: For every 100 feet of “zonal overlap,” collaborations increased by up to 20%. The more frequently you see and bump into a colleague, the more likely you are to eventually strike up a conversation, says Dr. Owen-Smith, the lead author of the study. “If that person knows stuff you don’t, that process can lead to information transfer,” he says. Other firms are trying ice breakers to bring workers closer together. To design a series of interactive installations expected to be set up later this year in the Portland and San Francisco offices. Our Pal lunch theory at work….Among the installations is a “lunch button” kiosk, which matches up employees with common interests to have lunch together that day. And there is a “conversation portal”—a two-way videoconferencing system attached to the end of a long cafe table—to help “spark informal conversation” among diners from offices around the world, Mr. Rose says. Another is a “conversational balance table” where an animated floral display provides instant feedback on whether someone is hogging a conversation. Efforts don’t always have to cost a lot of money. In the last two years National Public Radio has held six “Serendipity Days” in which about 50 employees from different departments, including digital, engineering, HR and news, volunteer to come together and think of new ideas and projects over a two-day period. One idea behind the program is to “work with groups you wouldn’t ordinarily work with through the course of your week,” says Lars Schmidt, NPR’s senior director of talent acquisition and innovation, who says in past sessions he has helped develop a new social-media training program for staff. Attempts to engineer serendipity aren’t entirely new. Steve Jobs famously designed the Pixar headquarters with central bathrooms so that people from around the company would run into each other. And firms have increasingly adopted open plans and even unassigned seating to get workers mingling more widely. In announcing its recent telecommuting ban, Yahoo Inc. noted in a staff memo that incidental encounters in the hall or around the cafeteria can lead to new insights. But most companies are “still really primitive at this,” says Greg Lindsay, a visiting scholar at New York University who studies interactions in the workplace. “They compress people in the same space, put in a coffee machine and just hope that something good happens.” What stage is your company in? A version of this article appeared May 1, 2013, on page B6 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Science of Serendipity in the Workplace.

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