The Hendersons bring a legendary bigfoot named Harry into their home. At first, they believe Harry to be wild, but, after spending time with him, the family realizes he is actually quite gentle. The Hendersons begin to care deeply for Harry and put themselves in harm’s way to protect him from danger.
“Fortuitous encounters,” those chance or accidental run-ins that yield unexpected results, was a favorite idea of our former CEO Max De Pree. De Pree was a vocal advocate for creating spaces that encouraged people to meet, and interact with, those they might not otherwise know.
A New York Times piece lamenting the decline of the randomly assigned college roommate got me thinking about De Pree’s phrase. According to the article, students benefit from letting serendipity choose whom they live with for nine months. Students who bunked with a roommate of another race were more open-minded about race later in life, for example. A student with a good GPA can positively influence their roommate’s GPA. Spending time with people who are different from ourselves makes us more well-rounded.
The workplace is no different—a designer benefits from spending time with an accountant, and vice versa. One way to encourage this type of interaction is through mobility. Unassigned workstations can spur people to move around, break up the departmental organization common in many companies, and—fingers-crossed—fortuitously encounter someone they’ve never met before.
Workplaces can be designed for mobility and to encourage chance interactions, but to make the most of it, people must feel comfortable with this behavior. Sometimes this can be as simple as giving permission, and sometimes, as was discussed in a recent Harvard Business Review article, can include senior management modeling the desired behavior. Employees will give something new a try if they see their boss doing it.
So, like the college roommate experience, working alongside someone new might not always work out, but you’ll be a better person for having tried.