Once upon a time, people bonded with their co-workers on office softball teams and traded gossip at the watercooler.
OK, so those days aren’t gone yet. But as big companies parcel Information Age work to people in widely dispersed locations, it’s getting harder for colleagues to develop the camaraderie that comes from being in the same place. Beyond making work less fun, feeling disconnected from comrades might be a drag on productivity.
Now technology researchers are trying to replicate old-fashioned office interactions by transforming everyday business software for the new era of work. The historically dry-as-sawdust products are borrowing elements from video games and social-networking Web sites.
People are social animals and usually need some unstructured time to blow off steam, relax and generally recharge their batteries. In many business environments there are a host of conventions to accomplish this, from birthday parties to golf tournaments to lounges.
Online work will also include similar processes. As this article discusses, there are many approaches to creating break time in a virtual world. Where these tools can be important in research is that many bright ideas come up from the random interaction of a couple of scientists, often in a bar or a party. Crick famously drew up the list of the twenty amino acids used in protein synthesis on a napkin while at a pub before any real evidence existed.
They will have to be careful that the areas are not TOO much fun. Disney is finding out how hard it can be to shutdown a virtual world years after it has served its purpose. But using aspects of Second Life in a business setting may be important for a truly creative research experience.
So online water coolers, ‘inward Bound’ sessions, and even golf tournaments (with trophies) will be important. Just as many research facilities are built today to foster the random interaction of researchers as they stroll between lab and office, online work areas will be designed to take advantage of the non-structured interactions all humans need.
There has always been a little bit of randomness in almost every great scientific endeavor.