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How to Manufacture Moments of Inspiration in the New Workplace

Water cooler moments don’t need water coolers. What you replace them with is up to you. What matters is replacing, or rather, preserving the spirit of the conversations which flow around them.

Photo courtesy of Priscilla Preez via Unsplash

The idea of the “Great Resignation” of 2021—the phenomenon of 33 million Americans leaving their jobs amid the pandemic—is a contested one. Coined by Professor Anthony Klotz of Texas A&M University, the term has the advantage of being catchy and indicative, as well as identifying a zeitgeist. Whether it’s wholly accurate or not, what we can say without doubt is that the nature of office working has changed—and is unlikely to return to the “old normal.”

Remote work, necessitated by a series of lockdowns, has risen dramatically during the pandemic, and alongside it, the development of hybrid working, with employees spending some of their time at home and some in the office. That has allowed offices to reconfigure, and specifically to become smaller, since they no longer must accommodate the whole workforce at any one time. Hot-desking and flexible arrangements are the order of the day.

This disruption to the traditional office environment brings many consequences, and one of them which has been discussed at length is the way in which bringing workers together creates an innovative atmosphere, one in which ideas can spring from the ether simply through the interactions of different people on a daily basis. These have been dubbed “water cooler moments,” and they are an elusive but valuable part of corporate creative life. 

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If offices are less fully populated, and fewer trips are made to the water cooler, how can employers seek to systematize this apparently random occurrence? How can we make sure that conditions still exist to facilitate the joyously serendipitous firing of the synapses? In short, how do we guarantee good ideas?

One suggestion has been to engineer these coincidental conversations: to have daily meetings online which are expressly informal, where employees can talk about their home lives, gossip, discuss their weekend plans. Another idea is to enforce short breaks on those working from home, to make sure they have the same kind of “break” they would experience in the office. 

These solutions, however, seem a little prescriptive. It is essentially an attempt to tell people to be casual and creative. Companies may choose to pursue more imaginative and resourceful approaches to seeking that spark of inspiration. 

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Technology certainly has a part to play. There are many platforms available to support group remote work, and carving out a space there—a dedicated channel, a message board, whatever—might create a kind of sandbox for people to experiment with ideas, exchange and develop half-formed thoughts and share all kinds of information.

You might decide to adopt a deliberately low-tech approach to the question. Some have mooted an “ideas wall,” a literal and physical wall on which people can write words, ideas and questions; the idea is that one reads as well as writes, and it engenders cooperation and synergy.

It seems to me, however, that too many gurus (and have we ever had more of them?) have focused on the means rather than the end. How it is achieved is important, but surely much more important is the spirit in which it is done. Whatever mechanism is used, it must foster an atmosphere of openness, creativity, imagination and, vitally, trust. The motor which drives ideas is fuelled by trust, so that employees feel they can safely contribute without fear of failure or denigration. 

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Employers must, in essence, focus on freedom and collaboration. There must be no fear of saying something stupid, no hesitation to pursue an idea that may not work in the end. If you can create a system which encourages this open and frank and trusting exchange of knowledge and questions, you will begin to generate an extraordinarily valuable product within your teams—and that successful production will become self-sustaining.

Water cooler moments don’t need water coolers. What you replace them with is up to you. What matters is replacing, or rather, preserving the spirit of the conversations which flow around them.

Eliot Wilson is the cofounder of Pivot Point, a change management, strategy and PR consultancy based in London.

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