What replaces the watercooler?


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Are you concerned about the impact of remote working on your team’s culture? Many prominent leaders are also concerned.

Last year, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella expressed his concern, saying “Maybe we are burning some of the social capital we built up”. Netflix co founder and co-chief executive Reed Hastings is also clear on the issue. He said “Not being able to get together in person, particularly internationally, is a pure negative.”

Closer to home, a comment I hear consistently from leaders and their teams points to one major downside of remote working – the loss of the ‘water cooler’ conversation.

Water cooler conversations are those informal chats among office workers that take place around a physical water cooler. Not every office has an actual water cooler, but take anywhere that people are likely to pause and have a chat and you’ll see the same effect – people chatting informally, connecting and sharing the hidden meaning of events and circumstances. Water cooler conversations can happen next to photocopiers, in kitchenettes, in hallways or in the café downstairs.

If I hear something interesting in the news, I might share it the next day with colleagues, given an informal opportunity to have a quick chat. The conversation might roam to other interesting tidbits, or a key piece of information about a stakeholder or project. Maybe the topic will become more social and we’ll have a chat about what my colleague is up to on the weekend.

And so the water cooler has become synonymous with information sharing, mingling and connecting that is completely unplanned and pure happenstance.

There are good reasons why the water cooler conversation has become so significant.
In an informal setting, without any expectations, people are more free to say what they think. They can also steer the conversation in a wide variety of directions. Unlike a well-run meeting, there is no agenda, no timeframe and fewer ‘rules of engagement’. You can hear all kinds of things in a water cooler conversation that wouldn’t get written in an email or said at a meeting.

Working with a client recently, after they had implemented their Activity Based Working (ABW) environment, I was in their building with a few odds and sods to finish off without distraction from people who knew me. I took myself to an unfamiliar part of the building and began working in an unallocated zone – which is a group of desks without any particular expectation of silence. With only a few people around me, it was easy to overhear conversations and my ears pricked up when two colleagues began discussing their experiences of ABW and working from home.
“To start a job here without a team would be really difficult. You need more people here from the other team – they talk quite a bit. You need it for new people to learn stuff. Without it, you miss all the incidental stuff.”

This was great field research for working with my client – an authentic take on what was really going on amongst some of their teams. Clearly for at least one team, their preparation for ABW wasn’t sufficient. The magic wasn’t lost on me that overhearing this conversation through pure happenstance was a perfect demonstration of the ‘incidental stuff’ they had spoken of.

This conversation also demonstrated the value of being in a space where I could connect with information flowing and connect with others (if I had chosen to join in the conversation) – two of the key aspects of successful remote and flexible communication.

When I am working with organisations and teams, we discuss the value of the water cooler. We work out how teams can recreate these informal chats, because it is these water cooler moments that facilitate a deeper understanding of each other, the team, the business or organisation and its changing context. Water cooler conversations help us understand what is important to people around us and to leaders, contributing to building the social capital Satya Nadella lamented losing.

Leaders everywhere need to be thinking about how they can replicate these free-flowing, unscripted and unmanaged conversations – whether your team is working a hybrid week or fully remotely.

There are many ways that you can create something almost the same online.

Create a space to bump into each other online. Create the opportunity for happenstance. Teams do this through having an open channel on Slack or a Zoom room that is constantly accessible. People can go there any time, and see who they might bump into.

Make time ‘in the margins’. Organisers of large conferences and international meetings know that it is the time on either side of the planned events, rather than the events themselves, where most of the real business gets done. You can set up this time by starting your agreed agenda at ten minutes past the hour, but letting everyone know that the room will be open on the hour. Or do a similar thing at the end of the meeting – end early, giving everyone an unexpected, unplanned window they can decide to use for conversation if they choose.

Share a meal. Friday lunch anyone? At Transformed Teams, our end of year lunch last year was the same meal, ordered to each person’s address, spanning 11,000kms of the globe. We enjoyed a couple of hours talking about all kinds of things. Deliveroo Australia chief executive Ed McManus says “Often the real conversations and real ideas come up informally and often that’s over food”, linking this to the fact that they have seen a 50% spike in Friday lunchtime deliveries they have seen over other days of the week.

Plan to catch up – ‘plan to be unplanned’. This idea, from the book Remote: Office not required is just as relevant today as when the book was released eight years ago. Every month, the business owners make a long scheduled call to each of their team members to discuss anything but work. While it might feel weird initially, people quickly get used to it and appreciate the opportunity to connect on a different set of topics, without an agenda.
Set up a collab session. Sharing one from our own in-house practice now… Once a week we have a window established where we make sure everyone’s calendars coincide. For half an hour on Friday afternoons we know that we can reach each other instantly – hop on a call if needed, respond to a text message or check something on our project management software. The complete lack of an agenda means that occasionally these sessions pass with relatively little interaction, but mostly it’s a flurry of communication as we share personal anecdotes and connect on the work as needed.

Have a team huddle. James Henry, CTO at PureWeb sets up completely agenda-less sessions where the team can ‘huddle’: “It’s OK to relax and have a video conference with no business agenda, but (instead) for the sole purpose of casual catch-ups and virtual happy hours.” The idea is that by staying connected even when they’re not working, they can facilitate quality communication that makes the team more effective when they are.

Set up an online space to talk about ‘non-work’ topics. Brenda Schmidt, CEO of Coplex, a venture studio, facilitates additional communication in her company by creating Slack channels around employee passions and interests, where people could share ideas, photos, and interesting links. In my experience these really take off in fully remote or distributed teams, but don’t get as much traction in hybrid teams.

If by reading this, you consider Transformed Teams to advocate 100% remote working, I would like to clarify. At Transformed Teams, our approach to your workstyle is always informed by what suits the nature of your work, teams and organisation and your desired business outcomes. It is also critical to recognise that working 100% remotely requires an exponential leap in teamwork and organisational capability. Pulling it off for longer than a year requires a genuinely significant level of skill – if you want to maintain a highly productive, engaged and happy team or workforce.

Wherever you are located, and whatever your team’s work style or flexibility arrangement, keep in mind that these days, there are three C’s that are key: communication, collaboration and connection – and the water cooler provides an opportunity for all three. So, if you are rethinking your workspace design, you will want to ensure the water cooler features prominently.

Technology has not yet replaced the ease and efficiency of the connection we get when together in person, but use of the virtual water cooler will put the three C’s to work.

Replace the watercooler to help guide your team’s communication in the right direction and keep your team members happy and productive.

Nina Fountain
Nina Fountain works with visionary leaders with responsibility for 250 people or more, to unlock their hybrid workplace potential. She achieves this through working with leadership teams to define and implement their hybrid workplace. Nina is based in Wellington, New Zealand and consults to organisations across New Zealand and Australia. Nina and her team at Transformed Teams are working to create inspirational workplaces for 50,000 people.


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