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Digital Workplace Alternatives to the Water Cooler

October 12, 2021 Collaboration and Productivity
Kaya Ismail
By Kaya Ismail

When most people worked in an office, it wasn’t uncommon for them to spend time in conversation in the break room or while making a coffee. From discussions about the workday to their favorite sports teams and the latest events in the city, conversations were commonplace. And whatever the topic, what was actually happening was an ongoing, organic process of relationship building that formed an important core of company culture.

While remote work has its benefits, 87% of employees see the office as a place for collaboration and building relationships, according to a study by PwC. But with the shift to remote work, building relationships at the water cooler isn’t as easy to do. That hasn't stopped leaders at remote-first companies, many of whom have gone about replacing the office water cooler with other ways to connect.

The Office Water Cooler Isn't Just About the Office

Remote work has made it difficult for employees to replicate the casual conversations that occurred around the office water cooler. “Employee water coolers have long been a gathering area for co-workers to socialize and talk about both work and non-work-related subjects,” said Anna Znamenskaya, chief marketing and growth officer at Rakuten Viber, a Luxembourg-based calling and messaging app.

These water coolers provide a place not just for casual interactions but can also increase engagement and collaboration among employees. The benefits are many. “This fosters fellowship, facilitates teamwork, motivates employees, aids in the removal of departmental bottlenecks, boosts productivity and contributes to the development of organizational culture,” Znamenskaya said. 

Importantly, while the water cooler is in the physical workplace, it is a space where the focus doesn’t have to be on work. It allows employees to take a mental and physical break from their daily tasks, said David Ciccarelli, founder and CEO of London, Ontario-based Voices, an online marketplace for professional voice actors, musicians and producers.

“It encourages camaraderie and decompression while providing the opportunity to get to know or catch up with colleagues without having to schedule time to do so,” Ciccarelli said.

Ultimately, that sense of camaraderie and community fostered at the water cooler doesn’t just lead to deeper connections and involvement. Employees are also likely to feel more comfortable working with each other when they get to know each other more outside of work settings.

“When they need help from a coworker, they feel more comfortable contacting each other as they have already gotten to know each other,” said Greg Kuchcik, vice president of HR at San Diego, California-based Zeeto, a marketing services company. Employees are more likely to ask for help or a favor from someone they know and trust versus someone they've never spoken with.

Related Article: Can You Create Water Cooler Culture in the Virtual Workplace?

Building the Virtual Water Cooler

Since companies without physical offices, whether working remotely permanently or temporarily, don’t have specific gathering spaces, they need to replicate the water cooler atmosphere somehow. This can be done through a virtual water cooler or a digital solution that provides a space for similar conversations.

Here are some tips to accomplish this:

Schedule Time for Social Interaction

Since employees aren’t likely to run into each other while walking around the office, time needs to be scheduled for interactions. This might include having a virtual happy hour or playing an online game together. All of these things can help re-create the same atmosphere as a water cooler.

“We schedule a lunchtime and send employees that attend a DoorDash food credit,” Kuchcik said. “They can then get free lunch, and we play games. You get to know each other and win prizes while eating free food, win-win-win.”

Create Groups in Chat Apps

Znamenskaya recommended using a chat app like Viber, the one her company provides, but other options include WhatsApp and Telegram to create groups where employees can interact and talk. Groups can be organized in multiple ways, but the key is to make sure employees can talk about multiple topics to recreate the water cooler feel.

“We share not only working issues but also success stories," said Znamenskaya. "We celebrate achievements and facilitate discussions around a variety of topics.” 

Use the #Random Slack Channel

Slack has become a staple for many remote and hybrid teams, and the channels feature provides a place for teams from different departments to discuss issues most relevant to them. However, many companies also create a #random or #miscellaneous channel where employees can chat about anything, from sharing the latest memes to sports scores, just as they would at a physical water cooler.

Related Article: Make the Most of the#Random Slack Channel for Company Culture

Provide Flexibility

No matter what you choose to re-create a water cooler atmosphere, the key thing to remember is flexibility. “The No. 1 tip I can give to creating a virtual water cooler is to create flexible stability,” Ciccarelli said.

While a virtual water cooler provides a place to build social momentum in an organization, any meeting should not be mandatory.

“Nothing kills the fun faster than having to attend a virtual social event that you may not have the time, desire or interest for. Virtual water cooler events should be available at the employees’ leisure,” he said.


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