blue water gallon on electric water cooler

Can You Create 'Water Cooler' Culture in the Virtual Workplace?

January 11, 2021 Collaboration and Productivity
scott clark
By Scott Clark

The employee water cooler has long been the place where employees get together, socialize and chat with co-workers about both work and non-work related topics. While more of a concept than an actual water cooler in many cases, the idea is that casual conversations between co-workers occur around the place where people from various departments meet, whether that was a break room, lobby or even just a coffee pot.

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs made it a point to create centralized atria when designing Apple Park, the tech company's $5 billion headquarters opened in 2017 in Cupertino, Calif. The idea was that employees from various departments would be encouraged to meet with each other, largely because that is where the cafe is located. 

Casual interactions between employees provide a social and collaborative mechanism that encourages engagement and personal satisfaction, and allow employees to get to know one another on a personal level. This builds camaraderie, facilities teamwork, encourages motivation, helps to remove departmental silos, increases productivity, and plays a role in cultivating organizational culture. 

The water cooler is about having "casual, unplanned conversations which form an essential part of our culture," said Vaibhav Gadodia, managing director of Nagarro, a digital engineering company.

With the move to the remote work, how is the water cooler being recreated virtually so that employees have a place to collaborate, socialize and get to know one another? “Even pre-COVID, this was a priority because as a global company, we don’t have a physical water cooler to depend on,” he said.

The water cooler is more a concept than a physical place, but it remains a vital part of business culture regardless. Until now, it had been where friendships are made, ideas are discussed and relationships are cemented. Then came the pandemic. 

The Pandemic Effect: Long-Term Uncertainty

The pandemic caused businesses to put the safety of customers and employees over profit, and effectively changed the way many businesses operate. According to a report from the Society for Human Resource Management and Oxford Economics, 64% of salaried and 49% of hourly employees are now working remotely most of the time, an increase from 3% and 2% respectively in January 2020.

Although there have been many benefits to the remote workplace, including flexible work policies, more family time, the ability to work in a relaxed environment and no requirement for business attire, the lack of social engagement has caused many employees to feel left out of the loop, isolated, lonely and depressed. It has forced employers to focus on creating an emotionally healthy environment at a time when they have little control over that environment. It has also caused them to find new ways to build culture, enhance employee engagement and evaluate productivity. 

Organizations need to be purposeful and strategic in encouraging non-work interactions among employees, said Mark Sawyier, co-founder and CEO of Bonfyre, a workplace culture platform provider.

“The price we all pay for remote work is fewer in-person interactions with our coworkers, which drives the need to find modern ways to recreate the water cooler in a virtual setting,” he said.

Additionally, even if companies bring employees back to the office, the effects of the pandemic are not going away any time soon. Collaborative spaces such as the water cooler, cafe, coffee area or boardroom are unlikely to return to normal, with social distancing remaining in place until a large enough portion of the population has been vaccinated for COVID-19. Even then, the psychological effect of the pandemic will be long term and many people are going to be uncomfortable being close to one another. 

Related Article: How to Practice Empathy in the Virtual World of Work

Collaboration Platforms to the Rescue

Before the pandemic there were 10 million daily Zoom users. By April 2020, there were 300 million. In November 2019, there were 20 million Microsoft Teams users, and by April, that number had grown to 75 million daily users. Slack, which was acquired by Salesforce, had 142,000 paying customers at the end of October 2020, up from 110,000 at the end of January.

Communication and collaboration platforms have played a huge role in enabling companies to continue operations while protecting employees and customers, and now they are being used as part of the virtual water cooler experience. 

In addition to collaboration platforms, a new breed of digital and virtual whiteboards have enabled remote employees to visually collaborate with one another. Digital whiteboards include online-only platforms like Mural and Miro and device- and app-enabled products such as Vibe, Microsoft Surface Hub and Google Jamboard

Virtual whiteboards have features that include infinite canvas, labeled collaborator cursors, live chat, the ability to attach files, different presentation options, and the ability to share or export. Because virtual whiteboards are hosted in the cloud, employees can be located anywhere and still collaborate with fellow employees, leaders, and managers using text, graphs, images, audio, and drawings, all of which can contribute to the virtual water cooler experience. 

Related Article: A New Class of Digital Whiteboards Make Virtual Collaboration Easier

Casual Virtual Collaboration Requires Structure

Often, the best ideas come from casual interactions among employees who work in different departments. These collaborations often occur outside the boardroom, office or cubicle. Likely collaboration locations can include the lunchroom, break room, elevator, around the coffee maker, at a restaurant or pub near the office, and of course, around the water cooler. The ability to casually bounce ideas off one another in a non-pressure environment lends itself to innovation, collaboration, stronger bonds, and friendships among diverse employees. 

Face-to-face interactions tend to build the most effective collaborations, which is why videoconferencing has taken on greater importance during the pandemic. As some employees return to the office, others will continue to work remotely, and videoconferencing and collaboration platforms will continue to be vital.  

“Every day, our colleagues get together on Yammer to make music or technologies together, get behind common social causes and give suggestions to make the company better,” Gadodia said.

Along with these interactions, his company sets up global calls for casual conversation. “Our weekly global calls bring together people from across different teams to talk about how we can grow our business, structured by design as a conversational medium rather than a person speaking and others listening medium,” he said.

Related Article: How to Build Corporate Culture With Remote Teams

Keep It Separated: Sort Discussions Into Channels

But part of the reason water cooler culture works for employees is that it is not structured, and although talking about business is allowed, it is more aligned with discussion about non-business topics. In today’s remote workplace, employees often feel that if they are talking to a co-worker through collaboration tools or even on the phone, the discussion needs to stay focused on work-related topics. It is crucial, therefore, to provide activities and mechanisms that allow for free-flowing, light-hearted discussion. 

The separation of workplace channels from those used for informal discussions is the key to creating a successful water cooler culture. “What makes the water cooler, happy hour, or kickball team special is that it is separated (physically, and therefore mentally) from where we do our work – and it’s this separation that creates the ‘gravity’ for the informal conversations with our co-workers so important for creating and maintaining relationships,” Sawyier said.

Work doesn’t have to be serious all the time and there should be time for employees to enjoy themselves, Gadodia said.

“These opportunities for casual connects shouldn’t feel like checklist items," he said. "This is driven by our culture, but also design elements integrated into our tools. There should be a team designated to thinking about what the next fun thing is for our colleagues.”

At his company, Bruce Lasko, managing director and head of human resources at LandrumHR, a national HR search and consulting firm, set up a virtual meeting place that is literally called “The Water Cooler” and is built as an online Microsoft Teams site. In addition, they use other channels for communication and collaboration. The company newsletter communicates company news and updates and a dedicated channel is strictly for fun.

“We recently participated in a 5K national company-wide event. With folks all sitting at home, this promoted fun, exercise and networking. Employees also announce marriages, births of newborns, graduations, and other personal news here. Posting pictures and other celebratory news is great to see and keeps us all connected,” Lasko said. 

With so many people binging on Netflix and Prime television series during the pandemic, LandrumHR is also considering a channel that focuses on employees and the shows they are watching. “Right now, we’re talking about adding a ‘bingeworthy’ channel for folks to discuss the latest streaming shows they’ve been watching while restaurants, bars, etc. are closed in certain parts of the country and we continue to social distance.”

The bottom line is that companies can create virtual alternatives to the water cooler that provide employees with ways to collaborate, discuss non-work issues, play games and have fun. Just like the in-office version, they build camaraderie, enhance employee engagement and emotional health, as well as help overcome the sense of isolation and loneliness that is prevalent among remote workers.

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