Office vs Online: The power of ‘corridor conversations’

A simple software modification to MS Teams could change the paradigm for remote work

Since March 2020, the working world has taken part in the largest social experiment ever conducted — lockdown. People around the world have been taken out of their usual routines and faced instead with a screen and a choice of business and social networks such as Teams, Slack, Zoom, Whatsapp, Facetime. In the process, we’ve lost valuable and enjoyable aspects of office life: the water-cooler chat, the corridor conversation, the coffee-break catch-up.

I was part of three major office moves as our company went from 50 people to 500 people. Each one of them subtly changed how the ‘team’ interacted, sometimes for the better, sometimes far worse. I have always been fascinated by people’s use of space and how it changes their activities. And now we’re largely online…

People are torn. Some have changed their routines, found an extra couple of hours in the day and don’t see a day when they’ll ever go back to the office full time. Others are living a nightmare with no escape: flats too small, kids too loud, Wifi too slow.

Businesses are torn. Employees have spent much of the last year working from home and yet work still got done. Office spaces might be scaled down, overheads reduced and employees encouraged to carry on in a ‘new normal’, but would something be missing?

Companies may take great care in the design of their office spaces, aware of how important space is on their people’s productivity and wellbeing. Creativity Inc, is a book I regularly recommend in which the co-founder of Pixar talks about how their whole office space was designed to make people interact with as many other people as possible in order to keep encouraging creativity.

“A company’s communication structure should not mirror its organizational structure. Everybody should be able to talk to anybody.” (Creativity Inc., 2014)

Goldman Sachs & Barclays have been high profile advocates of getting people back to the office, saying that it would be a challenge to maintain the culture and collaboration that these large financial institutions seek to have & should have. Even in a year where his company Alphabet has doubled in value, with an almost entirely remote workforce; Sundai Pichar says:

“Coming together in person to collaborate and build community is core to Google’s culture, and it will be an important part of our future” (Pichar, BBC, 2021)

Over the last year, we’ve seen the growth of Zoom, Teams & Slack as companies invested heavily in their online business communications instead of physical office space. I am proposing a simple add-on that will promote creativity by encouraging random interactions that can promote creativity.

Introducing virtual ‘Corridor Conversations’

Short informal conversations as you walk round an office are invaluable. They are one of the most cited reasons for companies trying to get their employees to return to offices. Such conversations are currently much harder to emulate over Teams / Skype / Slack — and that is why I would like to see an informal introduction app on Microsoft Teams.

The option would have a ‘loose links’ algorithm to connect anyone with whom your own direct contacts interact regularly. They might be people in different functions but with similar job titles, or others who are ‘almost’ connections. The ‘Corridor Conversation’ add-in would be set for certain times of day. For example, at 10:55am and at 2:55pm you would get a call from a ‘loose link’ in your organisation and you’d have three minutes to chat, just as you might if you were making a cup of coffee, or refilling at the water-cooler.

My current job is focused on efficiency. While on the face of it this idea might lose a few minutes of efficiency, I foresee that it would introduce greater effectiveness. The contacts created, the ideas generated — perhaps even just the enjoyment it would add to the day — would make the small amount of time highly productive.

Meeting people beyond your immediate circle is always interesting. It helps you to build a ‘strong network’, and means that you encounter ideas out of your usual frame of reference.

This is good for fostering diverse thinking on any number of things. Most scientific Nobel prizes are awarded to people who build bridges across previously separate fields of research. It also can be scientifically linked to happiness and success as in the great book Connected by Christakis & Fowler. They show that your friends’ links have the biggest impact on your potential jobs, health and happiness.

Introverted people among us might be asking: “What about us? Why are you putting us through six minutes of torture every day?”

  • You don’t have to do it. The feature can be offered as an opt-out — if you choose not to do it, that’s up to you. Adoption in any event is likely to depend on the ‘tone from the top’ — so follow the leaders.
  • There might be a list of ‘useful’ questions made available, perhaps even tailored to the person you’re about to meet, to help take any awkwardness out of an initial encounter with an unfamiliar person.

This simple add-on to existing networking tools would fill a significant gap in normal office interactions and help change the paradigm of Office vs Online work.

If you think this idea has merit — please help me to make it happen by sharing it with the right people.

Lived in Kenya, UK, & now Singapore. Love meeting people, reading, & playing sport. Enjoy everything from Entrepreneurship to Education to Ecology.

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