Serendipity at Finnish workplaces

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In this blog post, we discuss serendipity at Finnish workplaces. We discuss this especially in relation to remote work which has increased in frequency in Finland even before the pandemic.

As Toivanen, Känsälä, and Kalliomäki-Levanto from the Finnish Institute for Occupational Health explain, serendipity in this context means chance work-related occurrences, coincidences, or events that result in something beneficial. They consist of some sort of a prompt that generates an association with something previously learned or experienced. This then results in something positive and useful for the individual. 

Such benefits can be, for example, new ideas, products, practices, solutions, or relationships. Globally, the importance of serendipity for innovation has been recognized a long time ago. The concept even drove the design of Google’s 2015 headquarters.

Serendipity at Finnish workplaces

In March of this year, the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health published their study on experiences of serendipity at Finnish workplaces. Their study specifically focused on expert work. 

They say that the idea of serendipity is not yet widespread in Finland. I think they mean that the concept is not widely discussed. Nor has it driven workplace practices and/or design on a large scale in Finland. 

This idea and the problem of creating ideal circumstances for serendipity has, however, interested me for a long time. 

For example, at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies where I used to work, we used different ways to encourage what we called “chance encounters” between our researchers. Thus the conscious focus on serendipity determined many of our practices.

In addition to having research events where our researchers came together and discussed their projects, we created informal venues for this as well. We, for example, redesigned our common areas to increase the chances of random encounters and conversations already in 2006. 

We also, for example, organized a monthly lunch in which we expected everyone to participate. The idea was to have researchers from different fields, people who normally would not strike up a conversation about work, come together over a meal. Our hope was that such gatherings in a pleasant and relaxed atmosphere would be conducive to serendipitous coincidences. Those would then lead to new ideas, collaborations, research projects, and publications. 

Although we modeled these practices after our peer institutions abroad, this was clearly quite extraordinary in the Finnish context at that time. At least judging by the number of conversations we had to have to justify our practices. 

Due to these experiences, I’m particularly interested in how we can support and create room for serendipity in a world where remote work increases in importance. The study by the Finnish Institute for Occupational Health provides some answers. 

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When and Where do Serendipitous Events Occur?

We first need to, however, understand when and where such serendipitous events take place. 

Minna Toivanen showed that experiences of serendipity are quite common in expert work. According to their respondents, 54 % of them often encounter beneficial ideas or things they had not been seeking out. 

Women (58 %) had such experiences more often than men (49 %).

The size of the organization didn’t affect the chances of serendipity but employees in the private sector did not experience serendipity as often (49 %) as those working in other sectors (59 %). 

Most importantly, employees (53 %) experienced serendipity in informal encounters at work, for example, in the break room over coffee. 

Female employees also identified work-related events outside the workplace as places where they (42 %) experience serendipity. Meetings with clients or collaborators also provided such experiences quite often for both male (34 %) and female (37 %) employees.  

Experiences of serendipity were particularly common in work that’s collaborative. 

Surprisingly, working in open offices didn’t seem to increase experiences of serendipity. 

53 % of serendipitous experiences were based on hearing something interesting. Most often this happened in a face-to-face conversation with someone. Most of the time a conversation took an unexpected turn or something surprising was said. Sometimes people overheard something interesting or jarring. 

13 % of serendipitous events were text-based. Most often this occurred when surfing social media. 

Serendipity & digital work

Toivanen, Känsälä, and Kalliomäki-Levanto point out that our digital work environments also provide space for serendipity. Employees can encounter new people, concepts, ideas, and ways of working in the various digital spaces they use. 

In fact, those who often use social media are more likely to experience serendipity (72 %) than those who don’t use social media at all (44 %).

The opposite can be true as well. For example, the more focused a Google search is the less likely it is that one will encounter something unexpected. 

As a result of their research, the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health created a list of the qualities digital spaces that promote serendipity have. These spaces are accessible and versatile. And they

  • enable connections,
  • support exploration,
  • promote unexpected information,
  • vary in the information they highlight, and 
  • induce curiosity.

Implications for workplaces, especially in the era of remote work

The Finnish Institute of Occupational Health researchers conclude that serendipitous events most often occur in face-to-face encounters at the workplace or at work-related events outside the workplace.

Social interaction of all kinds increases the chance of this happening. Thus wandering into the break room, walking leisurely in the office corridors, and participating in conversations and informal events should be seen as important parts of knowledge work. 

They recommend that employers should actively create workplace practices, physical environments as well as give time for such behavior. Much in the same way we purposefully did at the Helsinki Collegium. 

But, how can employers ensure serendipity at Finnish workplaces when an increasing number of people are engaging in remote work?

Supporting serendipity in remote work

First of all, the idea of serendipity should be discussed at work. Employers should actively encourage employees to come up with ways that could support serendipity while working remotely. This is particularly important if some are working at the office and some remotely. 

Special attention should be paid to client relationships. How should those be conducted so that possibilities for serendipity exist?

Employers should give employees time and encourage them to engage in seemingly useless interactions. These could be joint coffee breaks over Zoom or Slack channels set up purely for fun or random thoughts. Employers should encourage such interactions also between employees, teams, and departments that don’t, at first glance, seem to have much in common. 

Employers should also see value in employees participating in seminars, trainings, and other events that don’t appear to have direct relevance to their job descriptions. 

Finding new, interesting people to talk to could be facilitated by “interest icons” used in a collaborative space such as Slack. Those would indicate one’s interests and thus work as connective threads between people. Such interest icons could be, for example, work-related interests or hobbies. Something to spark a conversation. I’m not aware of the existence of such icons in the collaborative digital spaces I use but perhaps they exist. 

(By the way, the initial idea of an icon indicating a willingness for a virtual coffee came to a person in a digital conversation we were having. This conversation initially wasn’t about serendipity at all. Thus being a perfect example of serendipity.)

Employers should encourage employees to share unfinished work, to think out loud also in the digital space. People often do this in casual chats with a peer. Less perhaps in written format in spaces that are accessible to people outside of one’s immediate team. Such a practice rests on trust and transparency, on permission to be a full person. 

Such communication (especially) requires adherence to the principle of charity. That we should assume the best possible interpretation of other people’s arguments. Adherence to this principle makes it safer to write down unfinished ideas and thoughts. 

I see this as a part of psychological safety Kauppi, Toivanen and Tuomivaara see as a precondition for creative workplaces. 

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