“The occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.” You might not have experienced much of this over the past six months because it’s the definition of serendipity and it’s become a bit of a scarce resource.
Over the years it’s fair to say that my personal circumstances and work-related activities have enjoyed incredible upside from that ephemeral commodity: serendipity. You never know when it will strike, whether it is in a bar, or a coffee shop, or at a conference or an event. But when it does the outcomes can be joyous, uplifting and sometimes unexpectedly beneficial financially.
Sadly, it is becoming ever more rare as each new diktat imposed upon society by the government is impacting increasingly negatively on our ability to interact – across all aspects of our lives. The negative consequences of ill-thought-out measures like curfews and the imposition of a myriad of other confusing rules is tough to measure but undeniably enormous.
The combination of enforced working from home and the growing restrictions on the hospitality sector is certainly a killer cocktail. Right now, the point where social and business intersects is where we are seeing the most damage inflicted. The immense pressure on, and growing failure of, businesses around office blocks and travel hubs is becoming all too apparent. But it is not just these businesses that we are losing, it is also the part they have played in being host to engendering business relationships and serendipity around the workplace.
I found it incredible to read that The Creamery café in San Francisco – that was frequented by Silicon Valley types – was forced to close in August through a lack of business after operating since 2008. Despite this area being the hotbed for non-physical developments like apps and social media, it has been in the physical, real-world places like The Creamery that the real deals have, ultimately, been consumed and people have unexpectedly bumped into others in their orbit and relationships subsequently formed. Much of this is now at risk of being lost.
This death of physical networking and the strangulation of serendipity is also being felt in many cities across the UK and particularly in the City of London. It was in the coffee shops that business was originally done in London’s Square Mile and this has continued up until today. Jonathan’s Coffee House of 1680 to 1778 might have been replaced by a Costa or a Pret but the principle remains the same – these are venues that provide the platform for fruitful personal relationships and physical connections.
These places are incredibly valuable in oiling the wheels of finance and work more broadly. It’s generally accepted that personal contact is absolutely critical to important deals and City types have been champing at the bit to be able to look people in the eye again. This is sadly lost when the only alternative is Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Google Groups.
It’s a similar scenario in London’s Soho except the finance types are replaced by the creatives. What’s the first thing these people do when they want to brainstorm ideas or to plan some strategic initiatives? They meet up in a favourite coffee shop or a bar. There is arguably nothing as effective as batting ideas back and forth across the table with a coffee or beer in hand.
It’s clear that as the impetus to promote a return to the office by the government recedes ever further over the horizon, and working from home becomes increasingly ingrained, the death of the physical meeting and the potential for serendipity greatly diminishes.
Although we can see this is already having a massively detrimental effect on the leisure and hospitality industry, the full damage it will inflict is difficult to measure across the broader economy and on the mental wellbeing of people who are increasingly cut off from physical interactions. Serendipity has been felled by the most unexpected and unhappy of occurrences.
Glynn Davis, editor of Retail Insider
This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Retail Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.