There are two words I’ve seen too much of lately:
‘serendipity’ and ‘water-cooler’. That may be three
words. But in any case, they’re becoming tiresome
and over-used. And, indeed, misleading.
It seems these words are constantly on the lips and
the tip-of-the-pen of people arguing that employees
should be in the office all the time. And the office
has to be remodelled to facilitate serendipitous
meetings and those awesome water-cooler moments we
have several times a day when we ‘co-create’
And it’s always the same examples – Pixar, Apple,
Yahoo; Yahoo, Pixar, Apple. It may immediately
strike you that one of those three sits
uncomfortably in a triumvirate of world-beating
creativity. Yahoo is, of course, mentioned because
of CEO Melissa Meyer’s stated reasons for rolling
back ‘telecommuting’ in an infamous leaked memo.
The variable value of chance meetings
Apparently at Pixar the leadership team fought
traditionalist opposition to create a central atrium
where people have to run into each other in order to
access any facilities. And this is the secret of
their success, that talented and creative people are
always running into each other and coming up with
Well, hundreds of large organisations have similar
areas, such as a ‘street’ where there are cafés,
shops, hairdressers, cash machines and so forth plus
meeting rooms and recreation areas. So the first
point is that it’s hardly a new idea. And most of
these organisations don’t see such areas as the only
or the best way to break down barriers and encourage
The second point – let’s get real.
Here’s a typical day at Pixar, Apple or Yahoo. Carl
tips up in the atrium or at the water cooler and
chances to bump into Carmen.
‘Hi, I’m Carl. You look like someone I could
‘That’s cool. I’m Carmen. But maybe we should start
with some co-visioning.’
‘Sure, I really sense some synergy here.’
‘What’s your specialism, Carl?’
‘I’m a Render Pipeline Developer.’
‘Cool. What exactly is that?’
‘I work with Technical Directors in Production to
solve technical challenges related to the render
farm and debug high-priority issues. And I develop
and maintain scripts to monitor the efficiency and
health of applications on the render farm.’
‘Cool. I like farms.’
‘I’m in Audit. I shut down projects that spend too
‘Wow … I bet that brings you into contact with a lot
of creative people ...’
‘Yep. Most of them …’
Silence, and a little foot-shuffling.
‘Could I take you out to dinner some time? Maybe a
(Edging away) ‘I’ve just come to fetch my boss’
coffee, actually. Better get it back quick or she’ll
be climbing the walls … Nice to meet you!’
‘You too, Carmen. Very serendipitous!’ ...
It can be useful to meet new people. But I wonder
how many of those chance meetings will actually lead
to any creative opportunities or business
efficiencies that couldn’t come around in any other
And how many of the people in an HQ are actually in
roles where serendipitous encounters will make an
ounce of difference to company performance?
Could it be control freakery in disguise?
Apple is preparing to scoop 12,000 people into its
new prestige headquarters. It’s vital for creativity
and excellence to have them all in the one place
like this, apparently. It shouldn’t be
misrepresented, as it has been by some journalists,
as a vanity project mandated by a cash-rich
leadership with a reputation for paranoia and
But how many of the people there are doing jobs, or
doing many tasks within their job, that can’t be
done more effectively elsewhere? And are all
the creative people and others worth employing in
Apple and other centralising companies only to be
found living in the catchment area? Or be forced to
up sticks and move there?
The bottom line question is, how much money does an
organisation want to waste on inefficient working
practices and excess real estate to conjure up those
rare moments of water-cooler inspiration?
In reality, of course, these organisations don’t
really practice what they preach. They do work with
specialist teams of experts and contractors from all
over the world, who link up as virtual teams. A lot
of the most creative work goes on between people who
rarely meet face to face, and often who don’t work
for the same company, or any company at all. Maybe
even the majority of the functions at HQ are back
office and managerial functions that could be more
cost-effectively located elsewhere.
‘But then – they’d be out of sight. So how could we
manage them … ?’
Well, management by results is always an option.
If the truth be told, that traditional
'management-by-presence' mindset is at the root of
all the special pleading about water-coolers.
The world has moved on. The nature of collaboration
has moved on. Most innovative companies don’t make a
fetish of forcing everyone to work in the same place
all the time. As Bill Gates said, with a chuckle,
when asked about Melissa Meyer’s memorandum, ‘Well,
I think the general trend in the industry is in the
Of course, there can great value in face-to-face
meetings when looking to spark new ideas, whether
those meetings are planned or ad hoc. But in the
21st century that does not mean housing all the
people, all the time, in the same place.
It’s time to stop overegging the serendipity. And
time to create the platform and most of all the
culture for meaningful interaction between people
wherever they are.