Creating Moments of Spontaneity when Working Remotely

It is becoming clear that the vast majority of people prefer working remotely. According to McKinsey Research, 60% of employed Americans worked from home during the pandemic vs. 25% a few years prior, and most want to continue doing so. The benefits are significant: we can work from "anywhere", avoid commute, be more productive, and spend more time with family. Yet we have not yet perfected how to best work remotely, as our current "ways of remote working" comes with significant costs. We are all working more hours (often in fatiguing video calls) AND feel more distant from our colleagues.

We personally miss the energy we had from roaming the halls in the physical office and spontaneously bumping into the colleagues we didn't normally work with on a daily basis. The topics of our conversations were very light - we didn't dive deep into the New York Times' "36 questions that lead to love" or debate our perspectives on free will. We'd chat about the upcoming football game, kids recitals, or last week's happy hour. Sometimes, we would learn about what our colleagues were working on and offered (somewhat useful) advice. But at the end of the day, these interactions left us more energised and connected to our broader company.

These "spontaneous" interactions shared three characteristics: they were unplanned, brief, and transitory - occurring in liminal spaces like the hallway or stairwell. Paul Levy describes these spaces well. "Liminal spaces are beyond formal definition. As soon as we try to design them too tightly, they tend to flee elsewhere – the stairwell, the bus stop, the dead space at the back of the building. We like them because no one is in particular control of what goes on there or what we say to each other. They are thresholds, places of transition. And because we are passing through, there’s a potential spontaneity in what we may think, say and even do."

Zoom fatigue & feeling disconnected

This relates to the #1 problem we hear from users who have recently shifted to remote working: the feeling of "disconnection" and lack of "real" social interactions. The novelty of Zoom happy hours has worn off, and we all need better and more genuine ways to interact remotely. The theme of our latest design sprint at Kosy revolved around these spontaneous interactions: how can generate the benefits of spontaneous social chats (boost moods, create new connections, and share info) in Kosy while not requiring a lot of effort from our users (e.g., meetings, text chat)?

Social interactions when working remotely requires significant "intent"  - the act of chatting with someone requires an action such as sending a text message or scheduling a meeting. It is more difficult to replicate the random fleeting encounters such as the hallway collisions, elevator chats, or coffee machine catch-ups that occur in physical spaces. To structure the thinking, we mapped interactions in Kosy on a spectrum of intent - from low (e.g. overhearing a conversation and joining in), to medium (e.g., going to the social room), and to high intent (scheduling a meeting).

To start, we prioritised ideating solutions that enable low intent conversations. We found there are two key constraints inhibiting Kosy users from having these conversations. First, it is very difficult to truly understand if someone is available or willing to chat. Second, the conversations themselves are often more awkward - there are fewer conversational hooks to get started and weaker time boxing so it feels rude to walk away.

Contextual status as a potential solution

Thus, context is key. A huge unlock for spontaneous interactions will be improving the "contextual status" of who is truly available to chat, what they are up to, and where they are located (from home or the office). This is why in Kosy we have invested a significant effort in the last few months in improving contextual status. Kosy users now see which apps their colleagues are working on, where they are sitting and with who, and whether or not they are "in between" meetings in our virtual hallway. There is much more to come in this space, including the ability to "go live" and broadcast conversation topics for others to join (a la Clubhouse).

To further ease the friction of starting a remote conversation, we have built "conversational hooks" into Kosy that subtly introduce topics of conversation. Hover over a teammate's avatar and you'll see their current location and a fun fact about them. We know we will have made a material impact when our users feel more socially energised from a day working in a Kosy office than from a physical one. We hope we can bring people closer together and more connected than ever before.

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