Coincidental Social Interactions
The biggest loss of the decentralization of the workplace is eliminating coincidental social interactions.
They are natural possibilities for spreading information, building trust, having fun, sharing experiences and mental breaks denounced as disruptions.
They are a huge part of what people describe as company culture, because they signal to every individual in the social system how open you can share your feelings, with whom you can share them and if you can share them at all.
I have yet to see a digital solution that can replace this completely effortless social dynamic created by an office. The only answer so far are co-working spaces which replicate them with people outside of the company. It basically creates an office culture which is separate.
My belief is that it’s impossibe to create these valuable moments in a digital space, because analyzing how social interactions happen in a physical space shows how many complex requirements this natural behaviour actually has.
How coincidental social interactions occur
1. losing focus
This can happen by one of them going somewhere in the office, which signals that the person is not completely focused in that moment. Or something in the space happens, like a sound, which leads to people losing their focus. None of the people involved intend to begin an interaction.
2. perceiving each other
Once the focus is not completely on the work in front of them, the focus automatically shifts to their surroundings. This creates the possibility to perceive each other and to assess someone’s current state of mind.
3. initiating interaction
If the assessment is that another person is available for a social interaction, somebody might decide to initiate one. This can be saying “hi”, making a stupid face or starting a conversation.
How could this behavior be digitized?
When people are not sharing the same physical space, the software to replicate this behaviour would have to know when a person is not focused. You might wonder if machine learning could identify this and yes, you are probably right.
Having a software like this running in the background means that a camera is recording every employees’ behavior all the time. Analyzing this footage in real-time is not only computationally and therefore energy expensive, but more importantly a huge privacy violation. This luckily illegal in many countries, because it’s an ethical nightmare.
Just to show the full extend of this behaviors’ complexity, let’s ignore data protection concerns, assume unfocused people can be detected with 100% accuracy (not realistic) and continue with the thought experiment: Once the software realizes that multiple people are not focused at the same time, what should it do?
The Internet, not connecting people
If the person is not focused, because it has left the computer, there is nothing the software can do to show the other person that there are people available. The good old water cooler chat is therefore impossible to recreate no matter how smart the software is.
If we limit the unfocused moments to the ones where people are still looking at the screen, the question remains the same: What should the software do? Showing everyone who’s available like in a video call? Or maybe just their names?
In a physical space the distance between people is an natural filter. Even though you might be sitting in an open space office, if the space is big and a person on the other side of the room is not focused at the same time as you are, there won’t be an interaction.
The exhausting digital space
Space is what creates the opportunities for coincidental social interactions to happen. Could creating a digital space in 3D or 2D help? The problem with digital spaces is that they require synchronizing our mental state and our position from reality to the digital space.
How often will you take the effort to move your digital avatar to the digital water cooler and take the laptop with you, when grabbing a drink at home? Since changing a Slack status is already too much effort, my guess is almost never.
The real world is unbeatable
The more we try to replace the analog world with the digital one, the more I realize how amazing nature and the evolution is. That might be a weird sentence coming from me, a person building digital products professionally for years, and I can assure you that the cognitive dissonance in my head exists and is getting louder.
Put people in the same physical space and they will have perfect visual/sound quality with no lag or delay plus a perception of space and their surroundings. It takes a tremendous amount of effort trying to just get even half-way to that experience via a digital channel and it would take an unthinkable amount of work and years of inventions to replicate it perfectly.
Humans need social interactions
Whatever the future of work is, as long as humans are working, it should only be a future where people are able to have coincidental and effortless social interactions.
We are social animals and we need social connections to have a fulfilled and happy life. Some people need more and some need less, but we all need them.