21 June, 2024
Why open spaces are the key to collaborative offices 
Nurturing unexpected opportunities, bringing people together, supporting wellbeing and creating space for new ideas.

When you open your mind, anything can happen… the same goes for space.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines serendipity as: “The fact of finding interesting or valuable things by chance.”

While planning, strategy, visions and goals are an essential part of successful businesses, in all areas of life there must be a little room for the unknown, especially when it comes to encouraging collaboration and generating ideas and opportunities. For businesses that value a profound sense of entrepreneurialism and inspiration in their team, it’s possible to literally build serendipity into the structure of the workplace.

The business value of serendipity

Many of our most well-known and well used ideas have come about because of chance or serendipity:

  • Ran Srinivasan developed the technology used in laser eye surgery following an idea that came to him at the Thanksgiving dinner table.
  • Penicillin was famously discovered by Alexander Fleming by accident, having returned from a vacation in 1928 to discover that one of the petri dishes in his lab had mould growing on it and on closer inspection he saw that the area around the mould was free of bacteria.
  • Swiss physicist Walter Jaeger accidentally invented smoke detectors when he was trying to invent a sensor that could detect poison gas. Instead, his device registered the smoke from his cigarette.

From a business value perspective, serendipity is more likely to spark ideas, lead to new solutions, strengthen relationships and foster a happier and more productive workforce. A book by Professor Matthew Grimes of Cambridge Judge Business School exploring the triggers that help enable serendipity, noted the benefits of encouraging serendipity, from engagement to better individual experiences.

He also observed the diversity of serendipitous experiences, from sharing thoughts to how serendipity may also arise from more introverted practises such as meditation and reading. Crucially, he emphasised the agency involved in serendipitous occurrences, not attributing it all to luck but literally by design.


How do you build serendipity into the workplace?

Knowing that serendipity might be the cause of your next big idea, keep your staff inspired in their jobs, or solve a problem you’ve been wrestling with as a company, what does the encouragement of serendipity look like in physical form?

The effective and the intentional quest for serendipity is rooted in a company culture that emphasises its value and their willingness to nurture it. Even the process of creating the space – including team members in the conversation from early on – can be integral.

Physically, serendipity manifests in the creation of spaces that encourage people to move around the workplace rather than traditional concept of staying static at their desk all day. In some instances, that structure even means creating areas where people slow down for a moment, have the time to converse where they might not ordinarily – we think of it in the context of the traditional water cooler moment. In other instances, it’s creating environments where people can think away from the relentless buzz of a busy working day.

Pixar and Google are both widely reported to have organised their headquarters to maximise cross-pollination of data and people across different areas. For example, the Pixar buildings were designed to maximise inadvertent encounters, with different disciplines (computer scientists, executives, and animator) in a single space with shared meeting rooms and a coffeeshop at the centre.


How we build serendipitous spaces for businesses

Serendipity is a concept that we have brought into many of our clients’ workspaces in a variety of different ways. For some, serendipity is woven in through the subtlety of staircases and wayfinding brought to the forefront of the building whilst lifts are given secondary importance. For other companies, it’s the more pivotal formatting of open plan offices and collaborative desk spaces.

Knowing the importance of getting time where your head isn’t stuck in a computer and you can think freely for a minute, spaces ranging from meditation and wellness rooms or libraries to more relaxed breakout areas, sociable roof terraces and lounges are all great solutions.

Following in the footsteps of Pixar and having a seamless flow through the entire office so that individual disciplines are not siloed away from the hub of the business, is also something that more and more forward-thinking businesses are adopting. This is particularly prevalent as companies balance flexible working practices, helping to bring people together.

Our favourite space, and one that’s at the heart of our own office, is the coffee shop. Not simply a coffee station, but a space that mimics the best of high street cafe experiences. Designed to have a small queue and space to accommodate it, these are areas that are always full of positive energy, where the barista remembers everyone’s order and where people open conversations over daily minutiae – who knows where that will lead?

Not merely leaving, but creating space for possibility, brings the kind of energy to the working environment that has an intangible value – for creativity, wellbeing, innovation, staff retention and success. If you could bottle it, it would be worth its weight in gold… we might not be able to do that, but we can certainly build it for you.

Create a workspace that fosters innovation.

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