Chance encounters – serendipity breathes new life into expert work
A study by the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health found that experiences of serendipity, i.e. happy accidents, are common in expert work. Over half (54%) of the respondents of the ‘Yhteensattumia’ survey felt that they frequently stumbled upon useful information, ideas or other unexpected things in their work. Women experienced this more often than men.
“The idea of serendipity is not yet widespread in Finland, even though it’s a crucial part of expert work. The importance of happenstance is often overlooked in work life that is ruled by planning, rationality and a hectic atmosphere. We hope that these research results will encourage more and more workplaces to begin creating favorable conditions for serendipity,” says Senior Specialist Minna Toivanen from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health.
Typical benefits arising from happy accidents include new and useful ideas, products, practices or solutions. Sometimes the entire organization can benefit from serendipity, for example when it guides it to a new client or spawns an idea for a new product.
The expert themselves may find that their work runs more smoothly. Serendipity can also impact their career, as one benefit frequently brought up was a new workplace or new position within the organization.
Interaction and face-to-face encounters required
The respondents encountered serendipity most frequently at their own workplace, at informal meetings within the work community or while working. For example, an employee may have overheard something significant while waiting at the coffee machine. Events outside the workplace as well as meetings and training seminars were also significant places of serendipity.
Social interaction and meeting people face-to-face in general seemed to be the most significant sources of serendipity for expert workers.
Organizations could benefit from facilitating interaction between work groups, teams, work communities, units, departments or other subgroups and creating opportunities for these encounters to take place.
The surveys and interviews were conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to the pandemic, many organizations have taken a digital leap as more employees have transitioned to remote work.
“Digital environments are usually seen as promoting serendipity, but on the other hand, remote work offers less opportunities for it to occur. We need principles of remote work that support interaction,” says Specialist Researcher Marja Känsälä from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health.
Examples of such principles include virtual coffee and lunch breaks, walking meetings on the phone and splitting into smaller groups during meetings to ease social interaction.
“As remote work becomes more common, there is a risk of reduced casual interaction. Supervisors need to ensure that interaction continues under remote working conditions where it takes a different shape. For example, it would be a good idea to leave some time and space for exchanging news and small talk during virtual meetings. Each person who is part of the interaction also has the responsibility to be present, listen and participate,” Toivanen says.
Quiet moments foster innovation
The constant rush in the work community and the resulting lack of time spent together prevented employees from noticing serendipity and utilising it. When a person is in a hurry, they fall into routine and do not have the time to reflect on new ideas.
“Hectic working days leave no room for serendipity. If your attention is firmly fixed on a pre-determined area of focus, there is no time to notice new ideas, seize them or apply them in practice. Renewal takes time and the mind needs to be able to wander. The fact that inspiration often strikes during a quiet moment, like when you’re walking the dog, speaks for this,” Toivanen says.
Happy accidents can be important from the perspective of renewal. That is why workplaces should consider ways to facilitate serendipity as digitalisation, constant changes, information overload and time-related pressures take up the employees’ resources.
Another finding was that psychological security provides fertile ground for renewal, such as taking initiative and applying new ideas at the workplace.
Employees can practice noticing serendipity
Serendipity isn’t all coincidence. The individual can influence it with their ability to pick out useful observations from the barrage of stimuli.
Serendipity always requires a strong foundation of information or experience that the new observation or idea can latch onto. Additionally, happy accidents are clearly connected to the individual’s renewal-oriented way of operating. In order to keep your prejudices from preventing new ideas from forming, you need to have an open mind.
“Due to its unpredictable nature, serendipity cannot be controlled. However, it can be fostered. Every one of us can expose themselves to happy accidents, keep an open mind towards new things, step outside their comfort zone, spend time with new people or mindfully examine their work environment from a new perspective,” says Toivanen.
Research report (available only in Finnish). Onnekkaat sattumat ja psykologinen turvallisuus uudistumisen lähteinä työpaikoilla (julkari.fi)
The ‘Yhteensattumia’ research project
- This publication is based on the ‘Yhteensattumia’ research project (2018–2021) which was conducted by the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health in co-operation with University of Oulu and financed by the Finnish Work Environment Fund.
- The study focused on employees performing expert work, their supervisors and HR professionals.
- The study is based on both quantitative and qualitative data which were: interview data collected from four places of expert work (N= 49), workshop data collected from four places of expert work (N= approx. 270) and ‘Yhteensattumia’ surveys taken by the members of two trade unions (N= 1197).
- The study also utilised a 2018 study on working conditions, which was used as the basis for mapping out a work environment that favours serendipity, the state psychological security and how it develops as well as the connection between psychological security and renewal-oriented activity.
- Project homepage (in Finnish): Yhteensattumia – uudistumisen paikat sidoksisessa ja digitalisoituneessa työssä (2018-2021) - the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health (ttl.fi)
- More information (in Finnish): Pelotta töissä – psykologinen turvallisuus työyhteisössä - Learning materials - the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health (ttl.fi)
For more information, please contact
Minna Toivanen, Senior Specialist, Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, firstname.lastname@example.org, +358 (0)43 824 4506
Marja Känsälä, Specialist Researcher, Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, email@example.com, +358 (0)43 824 9511
Teemu Suorsa, University of Oulu, firstname.lastname@example.org, 0294 48 3818
Source: Finnish Institute of Occupational Health Press Release 18.3.2021