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The Lost Art of Incidental Conversations at Work

In the ‘busy’ world of workplaces, something seems to be missing – the incidental conversations that once filled the offices, morning coffees, break-out rooms, and water coolers. These seemingly trivial exchanges, often brushed aside as mere distractions, played a vital role in fostering creativity and driving innovation. However, in the time of remote work and digital communication, these "silent innovation conversations" have been lost, leaving a void in the creative process.

The benefits of incidental conversations at work

Incidental conversations serve as catalysts for creativity by providing a space for the cross-pollination of ideas. Through these conversations, workers inadvertently blend perspectives, experiences, and expertise. These interactions spark connections between seemingly unrelated concepts, giving rise to innovative solutions.

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According to a Forbes insight report “Fostering Innovation Through a Diverse Workforce”, diversity of thought is a key driver of innovation. “A diverse and inclusive workforce is necessary to drive innovation, foster creativity, and guide business strategies. Multiple voices lead to new ideas, new services, and new products, and encourage out-of-the box thinking” bringing together individuals and teams who don’t necessarily share the same skills, seniority level, geographical location and ways of thinking in social and unstructured ways is key.

 

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These conversations can break down hierarchical barriers and foster a culture of open collaboration. When employees feel comfortable engaging with colleagues on a personal level, they are more likely to share their thoughts and ideas freely, leading to a more dynamic and innovative work environment. We also know that there are some difficult to measure impacts of the incidental conversation. A social chat in the hallway that might not seem like much, can become relevant months down the track in ways we might not even be conscious of.

 

The impact of remote and hybrid work

The shift to hybrid work and virtual communication, has impacted the organic nature of these opportunities. The structured nature of online meetings and the absence of physical proximity make it hard to replicate the spontaneity of face-to-face interactions. As a result, many organisations are experiencing a decline in creativity and innovation not to mention connection and engagement.


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The virtual water cooler

Virtual water coolers can be a useful tool in the attempt to recreate the incidental conversations that can happen in the hallway of a workplace. They may not be a perfect replacement, but they are helpful in providing opportunities for connection amongst colleagues that might not otherwise overlap, and provide the space to talk about topics outside of “business as usual”. It is important for leaders to prioritise the use of the virtual water cooler platform to create a culture where this is “the way that business is done around here”. Virtual water coolers will be more likely to receive buy in and have an impact when leaders are driving the use of them and communicating their expectations.

Examples of virtual water coolers include chat based platforms like Teams, Slack and other similar technology. Creating channels with the sole purpose of incidental conversation and setting some intentions around it can be a great place to start. Start off with structure such as quizzes, theme based sharing days, games and taking turns to share news/ updates and stories and as the channel gains traction you can potentially cut back on the structure and keep it more unstructured.

 

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What else can workplaces do?
Findings from the Thriving in the Hybrid World of Work report

The answer to incidental conversations in a hybrid work environment is not to put more meetings in the diary, but rather to find small, manageable moments to create these opportunities. It might mean using virtual water coolers, or it might mean prioritising social connection and creative work on office based days. Having leaders authentically drive these initiatives and truly listen to the workforce is a great place to start.

SuperFriend and Serenity Collective’s recent report, Thriving in the Hybrid World of Work, has a wealth of data on the impact of hybrid work on organisations. The recommendations from the report are organised into SuperFriends five Domains of Capability, Connectedness, Work Design, Safety and Leadership. Some other stand out factors for workplaces to consider when looking at supporting incidental conversations from this report are:

  • Leadership:  We need leaders to be role models in setting the tone for work-life balance and demonstrate the desired behaviours by supporting the team, being present, providing flexibility and allowing for open channels of communication to discuss and navigate issues.  We also need them to communicate clearly, set expectations, and leverage technology to support employees in managing their workload.

  • Connectedness: Socialisation and face-to-face interactions remain essential, and there is still a need for social events, creating intentional activities to build relationships and understand team members better for improved work-life balance. Regular check-ins, such as weekly stand-ups are important to enquire about team members' wellbeing for a more empathetic approach to mental health challenges
    Intentional strategies to combat isolation are needed, such as regular department meetings, national conferences, and deliberate efforts during onboarding to build connections

  • Work Design: Implement processes and tools to support hybrid work, including providing laptops and enhancing software flexibility. Utilise data on stress and wellbeing to inform decisions and adapt meeting structures for better work-life balance

    The loss of incidental conversations has had a significant impact on creativity and innovation in the workplace. These interactions play a vital role in sparking new ideas, fostering collaboration, and building social capital. As organisations navigate the challenges of remote work, it is essential to recognise the value of these conversations and actively work to recreate them in the virtual space. 

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