WorkSpace Connect is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Can Ambient Knowledge Transfer Happen in a Hybrid Workplace?

Some of the most valuable work lessons I've ever learned came from people who I worked near, not with. These include, but are not limited to: 

  • The colleague who calmly managed their workload by holding up the legal pad upon which their to-do list was written and asking their boss, "If I add what you want to this list, what am I crossing off?" It was a great lesson in clarifying and communicating both priorities and opportunity costs. 
  • The colleague whose meeting prep included assigning pre-meeting deliverables, thus guaranteeing that every meeting she ran was focused and effective. Her work habits were a master class in how to set expectations for teammates on group projects. 
  • The copy editor colleagues -- there have been multiple -- who routinely barked out their pet peeves to nobody in particular and thus educated entire newsrooms on the evils of passive voice, or when to use "fewer" and when to use "less." 
  • The colleague I caught booting up people's computers and going through their email folders after hours. He shrugged and said, "I like to see who doesn't password-protect their computer or empty their email trash folder. You can learn some very interesting things." I learned a lot about both digital security and human nature that night. 

I didn't have a phrase to describe this sort of serendipitous skill acquisition until Microsoft gave it to me: ambient knowledge transfer. As the company writes in its announcement that Yammer is being enfolded into the Microsoft Viva employee experience suite: 

Remote work has strained ambient knowledge transfer and logistical hurdles for employees trying to learn from each other. Employees who regularly seek individual expertise from their peers can find the process frustrating or limiting due to many factors like time zones, overloaded inboxes, or complex organizational silos. 

After ten years, Microsoft is retiring the Yammer brand and enfolding the community-building aspects of that tool into Viva Engage, the part of its employee experience suite dedicated to building and expanding employee connections.  

As part of the Yammer announcement, Microsoft also detailed the rollout of the Viva Engage Leadership Corner, where designated leaders can foster discussions, highlight resources, and participate in Ask Me Anything (AMA) events.  

However, the most interesting thing about the announcement is how Microsoft is tackling the question of how a workplace can foster ambient knowledge transfer across a distributed workforce. One of the solutions it now offers, Answers in Microsoft Viva, hopes to address that issue by meeting employees where they live now -- i.e. online in collaborative workspaces. Answers uses machine learning to match employee questions to existing answers, recommends topics and experts to folks browsing through the Answers and highlights top solutions. 

There's an elegant simplicity to the idea that employees whose "office" is now a collaborative platform will pick up all the office lessons in that same space. Done right, Answers can be the kind of place where employees experience ambient knowledge transfer by happily getting lost in the wealth of related, tangential and surprising bodies of knowledge created and nurtured by their colleagues -- and they'll notice who's answering questions and what those people do. 

Ambient knowledge transfer is a vital part of a workplace culture that nurtures continuous education and improvement. What Microsoft's doing with Viva Engage is an interesting experiment in whether workers can still absorb those valuable workplace lessons when they're not sitting right near those colleagues who can teach them. 

This originally appeared in the WorkSpace Connect newsletter, sent weekly each Wednesday. To get articles like these directly in your inbox, subscribe here