A new twist to social networking at work

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We’ve all been there. It’s lunchtime and we suddenly find ourselves at a loose end with no one to dine with. Lunch Roulette aims to change that quandary, putting a fresh new spin on networking in the workplace.

Lunch Roulette was first introduced two years ago by Lunch Roulette creator, Meghan Wherrity who told simply-communicate, “From an organisational perspective, people weren’t talking. Companies needed a fun way to get people together. As a result, we’ve definitely seen more interaction between different departments inside organisations.”

One large organisation experiencing success with Lunch Roulette is pharmaceutical giant Boehringher Ingelheim who introduced their own version of the app at their North American Headquarters in Ridgefield, Connecticut in August 2012.

David Thompson, Social Media Strategist at Boehringer Ingelheim, was away from work for three weeks last summer, and upon his return, found many of his usual lunch partners were unavailable, leaving him to dine solo.

He recalls, “Dining alone jarred me. On my way home, I thought ‘wouldn’t it be neat to build an app to randomly pair people for lunch and provide a fun break from work to meet someone new?’”

Innovation on the menu

Thompson dropped a note to Christopher Tan (pictured at right), Boehringer Ingelheim’s mobile strategy manager whom he had met at a company conference the previous month.

“I’ve always been intrigued by the technical world and building apps. When David sent me his email, it was 9pm on a Thursday. I wrote back immediately. The next day I brainstormed about how it would work; by Saturday morning, I wrote the code and had working prototype,” Tan explains.

By Monday, Tan rolled out the app to his colleagues and immediately received feedback from 30 of them, emailing him about how much they loved the idea.

“In less than 36 hours, we went from an idea to app creation to a rollout,” Tan recalls.

How it works

Lunch Roulette is a web-based url that can be used on any device. There’s also a link from Boehringer Ingelheim’s intranet.

Tan explains, “If I’m free for lunch today I put in my email address, select today’s date, pick a cafeteria to travel on based on where I’ll be, and hit submit.”

Lunch Roulette then matches Tan with someone who is also available for lunch on that same day.

So far, 550 employees at Boehringer Ingelheim in the U.S. have used the app; the match rate is currently 80%. Tan says he’s also been receiving inquiries about the app from BI’s offices in Mexico, Canada and Australia.

Anything goes

Thompson considers the endeavor to be the perfect compliment to the enterprise social business movement.

“This flattens company hierarchy. Employees can interact based on their interests as a whole person; they’re not just a position in a box in an org chart. Getting people away from their desks is powerful itself.

“Lunch Roulette is a way to take breaks while furthering business objectives. Employees can find people and learn something from a different part of the organisation.”

And where those conversations lead can be anywhere.

“Conversations can go wherever people want to take them – if people want to further their career chatting with the CEO, that’s great; if they want to talk about gardening, that’s fine. All we can do is facilitate the interaction,” Thompson says.

Next steps

Tan says he’s exploring a new model for Lunch Roulette where users would register for the service and twice a month be matched up with someone new to the service. The aim would be to give those employees a 2-week window to arrange a lunch or coffee meeting.

Keys to success

According to Tan, it’s all about enthusiasm when launching a social app inside the enterprise.

“If you have someone to champion it and encourage others to use it, that’s a big element of success. It takes a lot to get people to try something new.”

As for the social trend that continues to grow in companies worldwide, Tan says, “Moving things away from technology and back to face-to-face interaction is the ultimate goal of social media.”

Randomised Coffee Trials (RCT) at NESTA

NESTA is a UK-based independent charity that aims to help people and organisations bring great ideas to life.

Like Boehringer Ingelheim, they’ve recently introduced a program to enhance connectivity at their company called Randomised Coffee Trials (RCT).

“The project was very much a pet project which was not directly in our obligations or work responsibilities. I started RCT in September together with Jon Kingsbury (our Director of Creative Economies). At first we were thinking about an idea for new hires to get to grips with things. How do people come to understand everything that happens at NESTA so that they can get connected and know what’s going on?,” recalls Michael Soto, Innovation Skills team member at NESTA.

“We went around on an office tour, introducing everyone that was new and people around started joking, ‘O Bob, that’s what you do, I didn’t know that!’ – ‘You work on this? I didn’t realise that.’ It was in jest – but it was clear that there was an element of truth there as well. We realised there was more to this issue than just a new hire initiative. It had potential across teams and areas of the office,” Soto explains.

Soto and Kingsbury began discussing ways to bring teams together and get people connecting in new ways such as through book clubs or away days.

“One of the ideas that came up was having people talk to each other over coffee. To speak to someone they wouldn’t necessarily choose to speak with, or select didn’t know beforehand. And then we just started doing it. It began to build momentum so we started refining it; it’s grown to be quite an amazing thing,” Soto acknowledges.

Involvement

Anyone at NESTA is welcome to sign up for the RCT. Currently, 60% of the NESTA office are taking part.

Soto explains, “I know that we have a good spectrum across the hierarchy of people participating. I know the Head of Finance and the Head of Legal are participating too. They’ve pointed out there is a very sharp divide between programme and administration so being able to speak with across the teams in a space which isn’t regulated as “ I need this document” has been quite helpful.”

At large organisations, Soto points out, it often “becomes common culture not to speak to the person next to you, even if you may be the type of person to speak to your neighbours in other places.” (Infographic at right courtesy of NESTA.)

RCT at NESTA has created a whole new culture:

“I get emails from new staff saying ‘hey, my boss just told me about RCT and said I should sign up!’ or ‘my neighbour just said this was a great thing and I’d like to sign up as well.’ And I think it’s a sign of success that the very people who are participating are the ones who are out and telling their new staff about it too. It creates a culture of ‘hey, this is a cool thing, we should be talking to other people and other teams and this is a good way to do it.’”

Measurement

At the end of December, NESTA conducted an informal survey asking people what they thought of RCT. Among the comments:

• Provides legitimacy to chat to people about things that aren’t directly work related. Although every time there have been direct beneficial impacts on various projects and programmes.

• Totally random conversations, as well as some very useful work related conversations. Breaks silos at NESTA in a really effective way.

• Offers the chance to make time to talk to people they should be talking to anyway, and to meet people who they won’t be directly working with but it’s nice to know who they are!

• It’s a really good way of revealing links within the organisation and encouraging us to collaborate. It’s interesting that being part of the wider ‘RCT’ banners gives permission to spend and honour the time. Less likely to cancel a catch up if it’s an RCT coffee than a social catch up on a busy day.

• They like the prompt to talk to someone new (or someone they already know), and the permission to take 30 minutes just to see what’s going on, without any particular agenda or goal.

When asked how much they like RCT on a scale of 1 to 5, the vast majority were 5s.

Improved internal comms?

Soto says there hasn’t been a rigorous evaluation of RCTs effect on internal communications since the very essence of the idea “makes it hard to nail down.”

He explains, “A fundamental point of the RCTs is we don’t force people to talk about work; we don’t do any sort of tracking and reporting about what they do. And I think doing so would damage or ruin what it is. Anecdotally, I know that one of the Directors of Research for instance, came to me and told me that the entire organisation has been changed by such a simply process. It’s hard to say which actions came from the casual coffees. And if we were to trace them it would certainly make them not quite so casual!”

What else is brewing?

Soto says RCTs are still going strong and there are plans to expand the idea and re-imagine it across different contexts for different purposes – not just within an organisation but how it could also work in a community or city or across organisation.

NESTA have been in contact with other companies – including Boehringer Ingelheim – to promote and encourage those who are implementing similar social network initiatives. In the Netherlands, Soto points out, one company has taken the idea of serendipity and made it part of their business model.

In addition, Soto, says, “NESTA are looking to automate the process as much as possible, so that there may be a point in the future that RCT is something you can download from the website or an online tool.”

Advice for more traditional organisations

To successfully introduce an internal social networking tool like Lunch Roulette or RCT, companies need to have a “progressive culture,” Wherrity points out, in order to promote the concept to senior management.

Soto offered these tips from companies that may be socially challenged:

“Do not make it a big HR thing, or comms initiative. Having people connect informally over coffee is one thing but building it up can do more damage than good, it puts more pressure on it than is necessary.”

He adds, “Keep it small and keep it informal. Getting people together and particularly people that don’t usually talk to each other is quite innovative concept. I think a lot of people get preoccupied with the method, ‘what sort of tracking system are we going to create, how do we make it work, what are the processes?’ The way we presented it initially was very much ‘hey, do you want to have coffee with a co-worker? Sign up here. ‘ And then we encouraged those that had signed up to have coffee very informally and they could talk about whatever they wanted, the latest football match, the weather, the news and if they want to talk about work that’s fine. At NESTA, there was already a pre-existing coffee break culture, so the RCTs simply built on that.”

NESTA are currently having discussions with other organisations interested in setting up their own RCT. If you would like to learn more about this initiative, please contact Michael Soto at michael.soto@nesta.org.uk or Jon Kingsbury at jon.kingsbury@nesta.org.uk. For additional information, visit http://www.nesta.org.uk/blogs/institutionalising_serendipity_randomised_coffee_trials.