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Serendipity? In a pandemic? 

It sounds impossible to believe, but serendipity–that strange alchemical gathering of the right people in the right place at the right time–might be what your company needs after a year of remote working.

Previously, employees could hash out ideas or get to know each other over happy hours or those awkward but valuable chats during the long walk to the break room. Now, unless you're accidentally Zoom-bombing someone, those kinds of happy accidents rarely happen in the workplace. The flexibility of remote work has bloomed into a confusing side effect: our work lives are more rigorously planned and rigid than ever.

Luckily, there are tools to change that–to invite the serendipitous moments, conversational detours, and friendship so crucial to creating a healthy company culture, retaining employees, and sparking innovation. One of these tools is Donut. This five-year-old start-up connects individuals for conversations that build camaraderie, collaboration, and community through a variety of different programs in Slack. The donut-hole version of their story: they're creating a fun, low-friction way for employees to build meaningful relationships with their colleagues in a decidedly non-awkward way. 

Donut co-founder and CEO Dan Manian joined Fast Company contributing editor Lydia Dishman in a From Day One webinar recently to talk about bringing teams together, encouraging inclusion, and finding a happy medium for both introverted and extroverted employees in this new world. 

Speaking of serendipity: Dan Manian of Donut, below, with moderator Lydia Dishman of Fast Company, above (Image by From Day One)

The first question that may come to mind when thinking about the Herculean task of keeping employees engaged at the best of times–let alone in a pandemic–is: why do connections, or relationships between coworkers matter? Manian opened by setting the stage that this isn’t purely a question of warm and fuzzy feel-goods: "There's actually been quite a bit of research around how a more connected workforce drives more productivity, innovation, and retention." Dishman added that there's a business case to be made for greater collaboration, and traditional measures of productivity and collaboration have changed radically.

Especially after this past year, people are missing mentorship, learning, and social interactions, regardless of their company size, industry, or employee type. And when connections weaken between individuals, all companies–whether we’re talking about large, matrixed Fortune 100 organizations, startups scaling rapidly, or teams that have gone remote for the first time–are at risk for silos popping up within the workforce. "That traps innovation within certain teams or certain departments," Manian said.

Donut fights silos by creating these connections through serendipitous interactions right in Slack. "We want to be integrated with where people are doing their work,” Manian said. That means not having to learn a new program–employees can build connections in the tools they already know, where they’re already spending their time. 

Connection at work typically takes many forms: through coffee meetings, structured development programs, small group discussions like employee resource groups, and even chance run-ins in the hallway or around the coffee machine. Donut’s technology helps take the spirit of these programs and serendipitous interactions and put them into motion in a way that works whether employees are co-located, fully remote, or taking a hybrid approach. The app is probably best known for setting up random virtual coffee chats, but it does more than that. For example, customers use Donut to run more equitable, seamless skip-level 1:1 meetings; give new managers an accountability group to practice what they’ve learned in training; and stimulate asynchronous, often-lighthearted conversation through Watercooler topics within a Slack channel. (The latter of which came directly out of customer feedback and a desire to recreate the office watercooler in a low-pressure way.)

After all, there's the slight issue of getting everyone out of their bubble. Dishman cited research that suggests a higher state of anxiety during times of chaos makes people more risk-averse. "As a result, they're less likely to seek out those different perspectives and just fall back into what's always worked before, and that desire to bring things under control can also lead to a go-it-alone mentality," she said. Anyone who's thought about maintaining the status quo over the last year can relate–it often didn't feel appropriate to be innovative or to experiment. But for CEOs and managers, providing a bit of uplift can go a long way. "One of the things that's gotten harder is that you used to be able to walk into an office and feel the vibe a little bit," said Manian. "You'd kind of know if the office [mood] is down or not, and that's kind of hard now." Since execs can’t currently walk the hallways and stop by desks, they need another way to connect with team members of all levels that feels similarly serendipitous (which is where the skip-level 1:1 program came from).

Inclusive by Design  

In one way, the year's crisis has been an equalizer for employees, at least when it comes to having your voice heard. Every meeting attendee now has the same-sized Zoom square, the same access to a microphone. Gone are the days of jockeying for a seat at the conference-room table or pretending that perching on the window ledge is a fine consolation prize. And remote workers aren't treated as second-class citizens when everyone else is remote, too: poor connection, missing the chance to speak, and unread Zoom chats are now everyone’s problem, and hopefully a source of empathy in the future.

Donut ensures its programs are inclusive in many ways, internally and externally. This means thinking about everyone’s experience and making sure that people’s different social needs and communication styles are respected. "Different people want to build relationships in different ways," said Manian. One way to ensure that people are comfortable? No forced fun, to paraphrase Dishman. When employees opt in, they’re more likely to participate, make authentic connections, and generally feel the benefits of engaging.

As for the 24/7 Zoom culture, Manian thinks individuals should be adaptable. "Now that we're a year into this, there's probably a time and a place for having your video on. But sometimes people just need a break, and it kind of needs to be okay to turn it of." Consider that permission to grab a coffee and conversation over the old fashioned way–over the phone, of course.

That's So Random, in a Good Way 

Of course, you can't simply wait around for these serendipitous moments to happen. You have to create them. Part of setting up a Donut channel is selecting the frequency, which means that connections can happen daily, weekly, monthly, or even quarterly depending on the program’s goal. Another approach is Donut's Lottery Intros feature, which allow one participant (or a fixed group of participants) to get randomly introduced to new people each cycle. Okta, a workplace-software company, instituted a Donut Lottery program in which employees opt in to be paired for a 30-minute coffee with the CEO. Instead of confusing calendar checks and "are you free" emails, the Donut program makes an introduction to whomever was chosen on Slack, opens up a multi-party direct message, and creates a Zoom room so all you have to do is come prepared for facetime with the boss. "I think that's a really creative way for executives in this environment to be more accessible," said Manian. 

Organizations can discover how useful Donut is to their company through an analytics dashboard, which shows program by program, channel by channel, how many participants are in each round, and how many introductions have lead to meetings. Some companies even tie Donut participation back to eNPS and other employee engagement measurement, helping to complete the picture of why this matters so much.

The point is to create sustained connections and to find new and different things to talk about. (Please, no more "happy Friday" Zoom happy hours.) Many Slack-oriented companies already have their own common language full of emoji-speak and goofy internal memes. This language is how we connect to one another, how we tell each other "I get it, too," and how we bond despite all the obstacles in our way. 

Looking ahead, Manian reflected on the advantages of hybrid work and of how Donut can help companies cast a wider net. "The first thing that pops to mind is actually the opportunity to be more inclusive geographically and not have people get left out of the room," he said.  

Editor's note: From Day One thanks our partner who sponsored this webinar, Donut. You can watch a video of the conversation here. Please visit our conference page to register for more upcoming events.

Kara Cutruzzula is a journalist, playwright, and author of Do It For Yourself, a motivational journal designed to guide people through their work and creative projects.