This past year, a lot has been said about the different facets of working remotely, from benefits like increased flexibility and decreased commute time, to the challenges of separating the personal from the professional. But in all these discussions, we have perhaps overlooked one of the biggest downsides of WFH – the absence of the proverbial watercooler.
The ability to connect with one’s co-workers at a personal level and in a spontaneous way is one of the greatest joys of working in a co-located office. I’m sure many of you have built deep relationships at the workplace over the course of your career – I know I have. But could these bonds have been built so effortlessly if we had been working from home? Probably not. The inherent nature of remote work makes it difficult to form relationships organically.
Before the pandemic, some of you may have occasionally worked from home. Then, you could easily disconnect from your team members for the day, comfortable in the knowledge that you would catch up tomorrow. But as COVID-19 forced much of the corporate world to go 100% remote, things changed dramatically. Now, some of you might go weeks, even months, without meeting your colleagues face to face. This is a temporary state of affairs for some teams but for others, it is set to become a way of life.
The absence of ‘watercooler moments’ is one of the greatest setbacks of WFH, leaving remote teams feeling distant and fragmented. So, this week, my message focuses on how leaders can recreate these incredibly important interactions. Why is watercooler talk vital for a healthy, high-performing team? How can you enable team members to connect with each other at a human level – even as they work out of their own homes?
Why watercooler moments matter
The loss of in-person interactions erodes the feeling of trust, goodwill and community in a team. In his Medium article on the topic, Tim Hickle explains:
When you work remotely, your coworkers can easily become two-dimensional (both literally and figuratively), and your relationship becomes more transactional. This degrades trust, and your brain starts to put coworkers in other, less generous buckets. Instead of putting your coworkers in the same categories as family members, friends, and cherished mentors, you are more likely to think of your coworkers in a negative light, ranging from annoyances to villains.
Why does this happen? It boils down to the frequency and nature of your interactions. Your perception of a co-worker is based on the totality of moments you spend together. In a traditional office, you have plenty of opportunities for pleasant, non-work interactions: cracking a joke when your paths cross in the hallway, sharing weekend plans over coffee, or chit-chatting before a meeting. Studies show that watercooler talk boosts employee engagement and strengthens company culture.
Along with enhancing interpersonal bonds, these interactions facilitate informal learning. In his piece for The Conversation, Paul Levy elaborates:
These spaces also play an important role in the sharing of work-related information – sometimes referred to as “water-cooler learning”. Spaces like the coffee area are knowingly created by companies, because people share knowledge, stories of their experiences and talk about the problems they are facing in these spaces.
In the health sector, researchers have identified how corridor conversations are an important way to deal with crises and complexity. These impromptu encounters can often result in colleagues (often unknowingly) working out how to fix problems, deal with crises, de-stress, and avoid reinventing the wheel.
No more watercooler: a downward spiral
The friendly, informal exchanges that brighten office-life are the first casualty of WFH. With the transition to remote work, the vast majority of your interactions become focused on the tasks at hand – and these are much more likely to be coloured by stress and negativity. As the human aspect of the relationship fades into the background, co-workers start thinking about each other in purely transactional terms. Performance can get impacted: collaboration suffers, conflict increases, and things begin to slip through the cracks. Informal learning is also hampered, leading to a decline in innovation and productivity.
Structure for spontaneity
In a co-located office, watercooler moments happen naturally. In a remote work environment, they take a little more work. Leaders need to put certain structures in place to enable personal connections between team members.
You might be thinking that this sounds far too intentional. Isn’t it best if personal interactions between co-workers are unplanned and spontaneous? The answer is yes – but only once the required tools and culture are in place. Even an office needs several prerequisites for chance encounters and casual conversations to happen – meeting spaces, cafeterias, tea and coffee machines, and most legendary of all, the watercooler! These enabling features, which instantly disappear when you switch over to WFH, need to be replaced creatively in a virtual work environment.
Creating virtual watercooler moments
Leaders must take charge of rebuilding a sense of trust and community within their remote teams. Here are four suggestions to create valuable opportunities for connection:
1. Put the ‘whole self’ front and centre.
Anchor your team’s remote working culture in humanity. That means bringing personal context into everyday communication. When teams interact virtually, especially via text, chat and email, they lose out on important interpersonal information – tone of voice, facial expressions, hand gestures. They start seeing each other as two-dimensional figures.
As the manager of a remote team, resist the urge to implement strict rules like ‘no emojis’ and ‘stick to facts’, which can make daily interactions extremely cold and dry. Instead, take a more flexible and human approach. Foster a communication culture in which team members can express their personality and don’t feel compelled to hide their personal lives. Go ahead and lead by example: add a smiley face to that email, update co-workers about your weekend plans on the Friday evening call, and the next time someone’s kid pops up on the meeting screen, give them a virtual high-five!
2. Schedule recurring one-on-one calls.
Let’s face it: group video calls aren’t conducive to personal conversations. They tend to be awkward, full of technical glitches and the most-heard line is probably ‘can you hear me?’. It’s difficult to be spontaneous in such an environment, which is why one-on-one calls are a much better way to catch up and swap personal news.
Managers can schedule these chats on a weekly, fortnightly or monthly basis – whichever works best. The important this is to be regular: make it a recurring call and put it into your calendar. Encourage team members to make time for such catch-ups among themselves as well. There’s only one rule: no work talk! If you’re struggling to find time in your day, Hickle offers a suggestion:
Scheduling phone calls during mundane daily activities (e.g., doing the dishes) can be a really great solution for both being productive and escaping work mode during these calls.
3. Set up virtual watercoolers.
The watercooler gained such importance because it offered a physical space for people to meet, gather and chat. Hickle gives another example of a centrepiece for relationship building – the ping-pong table, which has become the posterchild of start-up culture. As Hickle notes:
It allowed people with different interests and backgrounds to bond over a shared experience, which then translated into closer relationships.
Now leaders need to create virtual spaces that give team members a reason to come, mingle and connect. It’s best to have multiple options so people can choose what to attend and don’t feel forced into it. Here are a few suggestions:
- Set up a virtual book club. Stick to short stories rather than lengthy books so more people can participate.
- Have a virtual coffee meet/happy hour, where everyone brings a beverage of their choice.
- Organise a quiz night – a good blend of competition and fun. Include a range of topics that appeal to your team members.
- Host a movie night where you all watch a film or OTT episode. Share your thoughts in real time over a Slack channel/team chat group.
- Create a daily team break: a short no-work window during which everyone is free for casual chats and personal calls. Make sure it’s at the same time every day to avoid confusion.
- Create an online meeting room and keep it permanently open for team members to stop by and hang out whenever they like. It’s best if managers stay away so team members don’t feel they’re being scrutinised.
4. Explore the latest tech.
While technology can’t fully replicate the spontaneity of watercooler chatter, it can certainly help. There are several innovative apps out there that facilitate informal interaction within teams. Some of the best ones are founded on the belief that meaningful exchanges happen one-on-one and without managerial oversight.
Take Donut, a Slack plug-in app that is designed for co-workers to ‘connect serendipitously’. Donut randomly pairs team members and nudges them to have coffee together over a video call. For who don’t know each other too well or have fallen out of touch, this tool offers a wonderful opportunity to connect. Other tools worth checking out are Watercooler and MINGLR. As Levy explains in the article mentioned above:
Apps like this…serve as connectors in a complex working environment, offering fast and smart connection. They offer the chance to pair up colleagues and trigger all kinds of interesting conversations and exchanges. And they also invite us to meet people we wouldn’t usually bump into, people we might get to like and to share valuable thoughts with.
Restoring the camaraderie and friendship that were lost in the transition to WFH is a vital step towards future success. With the right tools in place, your team members will once again be able to interact with each other in ways that are informal, meaningful and grounded in humanity.