A staple of office life – and the office sitcom – is the water cooler. Whether it's the actual water cooler, the break room's coffee machine and microwave, or a cafeteria on the corporate campus, the situation is the same: a casual location where people congregate, generally when they aren't immediately occupied by a task. However, when you're working remotely, and you need to get up and get a drink or take a break, where do you go? Enter, the virtual water cooler.
A staple of office life – and the office sitcom – is the water cooler. What's so powerful about a jug of water, a small refrigeration coil, and some gurgling noises and paper cups?
Well, it's all about the social aspect of the workplace. When you work in the same environment as others, there's a flexibility and freedom to communication. Whether it's the actual water cooler, the break room's coffee machine and microwave, or a cafeteria on the corporate campus, the situation is the same: a casual location where people congregate, generally when they aren't immediately occupied by a task.
This comparative lack of immediate responsibility or cognitive occupation, coupled with the centralized location, allows collaborative communication and spontaneous idea generation amongst disparate members of your team.
Or, to put it in non-buzzword speak:
Water cooler conversations have a lot of benefits, from ideas of how two people can work together, to simple socialization.
A survey cited by Mural found that the two biggest frustrations of remote workers, particularly those who had recently shifted to remote work over their previous in-office work, were:
Being able to work from home allows for a lot of flexibility and freedom. Remote work is also notoriously more productive and efficient than office work.
On the other hand, when you're working remotely, and you need to get up and get a drink or take a break, where do you go? Your kitchen, or a café down the street, or for a walk through the neighborhood, or whatever you like.
The problem here is that all of those locations are isolated. Not necessarily from other people – a café is a public place – but from your coworkers. You don't get to socialize with your team members, you don't get to discuss side projects or means of collaborating; all you can do is hang out with your family, enjoy a cup of coffee, and relax however you find most effective.
Enter, the virtual water cooler.
As you might imagine, a virtual water cooler is a digital place for casual communications. It's a central, designated place your employees can go on a break or during a free moment to talk about things other than whatever is on their mind with their primary tasks. Your sales team can talk about things that aren't sales, your IT team can discuss non-IT topics, and it's all very casual.
Unlike other means of business communications, the water cooler is intentionally not focused on work-related tasks and topics. The idea is to give a social channel to your remote employees, where they can engage with one another and with anyone still working in the office, building social rather than business connections.
There are quite a few different ways you can build a virtual water cooler, which we'll discuss later. First, though, let's talk about the benefits of having one in the first place.
The physical water cooler is a core aspect of socialization (and drama, on TV) in an office. What benefits does it have, other than letting your employees let off a little stress and stay incrementally more hydrated?
It helps foster a sense of community.
The water cooler is a central location for non-work socialization. It's one of the primary ways where employees can chat with one another about their interests, rather than work-related topics. And, since it's a location you only visit when you aren't actively working, there's no suppressive authority saying "don't talk about non-work topics on company time" or even just the softer "get back to work."
Sure, if you have employees spending hours in the break room, there's going to be a problem. But, these quick five-minute chats allow people to feel much more connected with one another on a social level.
Whether people are chatting about the most recent sports game, the latest episode of the hit TV show, or something happening on the news, the water cooler is a great way to talk about things with no expectation of getting too deep into the weeds.
The virtual water cooler brings this ability to chat and socialize to remote workers. It works with hybrid teams where some people are in the office, and others are remote, and it works for fully remote teams as well.
It helps build company culture and collaboration.
One of the biggest outlets of stress in a workplace is complaining. Often, we tend to work in our isolated ways, where other people in our lives might not grasp a situation enough to understand the complaints you may have. The people who really get it are your coworkers.
A water cooler chat can center around complaints, whether it's about the software you use, a problematic customer, a corporate directive no one likes, or whatever else.
Complaining isn't the core benefit, though. The stress relief is valuable, but stress relief can come in many forms. What's really valuable is the opportunity to share insight and offer ideas. If one employee is complaining about something or struggling with a task, they can bring it up at the water cooler to vent some steam. Their coworkers can then potentially offer ideas or suggestions. It might be helpful!
There's also the opportunity for employees to discuss side projects and other tasks they're working on. More than one business has had extremely successful projects come out of stray ideas discussed around the water cooler, with a handful of employees from different teams picking up and working on them in their spare moments.
It can help integrate introverts with the team.
Introverts might be perfectly content to sit in their cubicle working away at their tasks, isolated from the rest of the group except for mandatory participation in weekly meetings. The water cooler, break room, or another central location gives them an opportunity to break out of their shell, if even a little bit, and start to open up with their coworkers. It can take some time, but it's valuable.
Likewise, the water cooler chat can be a casual way to get to know a new employee and help integrate them into the team. One of the leading drivers of turnover in a company is a new employee not feeling like they fit in, like they can't be part of the club, and leaving because of it. The water cooler chat helps minimize this risk.
A virtual water cooler is a central location where your employees can discuss non-work-related topics. The difference is, unlike a normal water cooler, they aren't there getting water or a cup of coffee. Since it's digital and works for remote employees, it needs to be part of a centralized communication and collaboration platform.
Ideally, a virtual water cooler will be integrated with the rest of your communications channels. If your employees need to log into another service just to be available for off-topic chats, well, that's like putting your water cooler in a building across the street. Very few people will ever visit it, and those that do might be doing it for other reasons, like an excuse to kill more time on break.
A virtual water cooler needs three things to be successful:
1. The lowest possible barrier to usage.
2. Very little oversight or management review of what is discussed.
3. Incentives for using it.
So, let's discuss each of the three.
A low barrier to access.
Perhaps the biggest key to establishing a virtual water cooler is making it easy to access without being too distracting.
One of the simplest examples of a virtual water cooler is a dedicated water cooler channel in your company Slack. Since Slack allows you to create numerous channels for different purposes, you can have channels for work topics, channels for collaborative topics, and channels for non-work topics. Some companies go whole-hog and make #sports, #book-club, #gaming-lounge, and #water-cooler setups, or whatever meets the interests of the team.
Slack is also a powerful platform because there are numerous chat bots and apps that link into it and allow for additional features, mini-games, and other fun to be had in the off-topic rooms. Just make sure they aren't too attractive; otherwise, some people might spend more time there than they do getting work done.
There are, to put it simply, dozens if not hundreds of different company centralized communications platforms. Apps like Trello, platforms like Mural or Discord, or even social media groups can all be used (though social media can be extra-risky due to the external content and temptations inherent in their designs.)
Equality in communications.
Another key to having a successful water cooler online is ensuring equality of access. There are two ways to do this, and they depend on your company structure, hierarchy enforcement, and expectations of behavior.
The first is to take an "everyone is equal here" stance. The water cooler is a place where anyone, from the CEO to the newest intern, can spend a few minutes just chatting and getting to know other folks in the organization. There are no titles, no one has to worry about what they say, and there's no need to let the management dominate the discussion.
This option can be very tricky to pull off, especially if there are instances where something someone says in the water cooler chat is later used against them by jilted or offended management. Many older organizations with more traditional structures and expectations of respectful behavior might find it impossible to have such a level playing field. Those kinds of organizations often go with the second option.
That second option is to have either multiple water coolers or to make the water cooler only available to a certain tier of employees. Some companies might have segmented water coolers; the IT water cooler, the Sales water cooler, the Management water cooler, and so on. Other companies might just have a Management and Non-Management divide. Still, others might simply prohibit managers from participating in the water cooler.
The downside to this is obvious: barriers between groups. Two of the biggest benefits of the digital water cooler are collaboration and socialization. If you're blocking off different departments, they can build more rapport within their group, but they won't socialize or collaborate with other groups.
Regardless of what you choose, the key is that moderation and management oversight should be minimal. The goal is to allow people to freely communication without fear of the things they say being used against them. However, some level of moderation needs to exist to prevent drama, insults, arguments, fights, and unchecked escalation of conflict that can disrupt business.
Incentives to chat.
The third part of a virtual water cooler is some incentive for people to chat and socialize and, you know, actually use the channel. Some companies might not find this to be an issue. Others might want to add little events or games, such as:
What works for your company might not work for another, so experiment and find out what gets people talking. Who knows, maybe you'll want to organize an event and order some pizza for the team, or maybe you'll just have a staff of digital natives taking full advantage of the off-topic chat from the get-go.
A virtual water cooler is a great way to foster socialization and community within a hybrid or remote team. Since one of the driving arguments for a return to the office is a return to socialization, why not give it a try? You might be able to restore that team feeling without sacrificing the resources, time, and morale inherent in an office environment.