Water cooler talk is misunderstood
As we mentioned, some leaders believe that meeting at the office water cooler or coffee machine is an essential part of spontaneous learning and collaboration. However, we don’t see it that way (neither did The New York Times), and we want to clear a few things up.
The conversations happening at the water cooler between close colleagues are likely not work-related—but that’s supposed to be the point. Those profound ideas that drive innovation probably aren’t happening during these chance meetings.
Ethan S. Bernstein, who studies organizational behavior and teaches at Harvard Business School, told us:
“There's credibility behind the argument that if you put people in spaces where they are likely to collide with one another, like at a water cooler, they are likely to have a conversation. But there's far less evidence that, when they do, they will discuss anything of use to the organization.
As my colleagues at HBS have shown, engineering productive serendipity requires more than just a water cooler. And all of the new tools we now have to support remote work might just provide some of the answers to that dilemma.”
We do, however, recognize that remote work means less bumping into your close colleagues for that mental break or space to offload (or complain). We also know that the massive shift to remote work in 2020 saw a 21% decrease in “weak connections” between co-workers (i.e. those employees that may not work together often).
This spontaneous communication is what should define “water cooler talk,” not popping into your colleagues office for a brainstorm.
Whether this chat happens around an actual water cooler (or coffee machine) is irrelevant. Those unplanned conversations may not drive innovation as some leaders think, but they can certainly nurture better working relationships.
The challenge now is to figure out how to replicate that in a remote work environment without interrupting your team’s workday.
How async water cooler talk strengthens your remote culture
In office settings, team members can chat in the break room, at each other’s desks, and, of course, as they rehydrate at the water cooler. There are a ton of benefits to having informal conversations that aren’t always work-related.
For starters, it contributes to a positive company culture, which is important to many people, especially in remote work. During the hiring and onboarding processes, they want to hear about what your company is doing to facilitate that.
94% of team leaders believe a positive workplace culture will help to create a resilient team in your organization. Building up your company culture keeps existing employees happy and excited to work with you.
Let’s explore more reasons why a positive workplace culture is beneficial to your organization and how water cooler talk contributes to it.
Improve employee retention
Globalization Partners states that one of the top three ways to improve employee retention is by building a human connection with your team. By creating ways to keep your team engaged and build those connections—i.e. with virtual water cooler conversations—you’re also helping to improve employee morale and retention in the long run.
Furthermore, lonely employees have poorer task output and performance than employees who feel welcome and engaged in their company. Gallup reported in 2021 that disengaged employees have miserable work experiences, and as much as 15% of employees are actively disengaged in their roles.
Employee disengagement can occur for many reasons, like poor management, lack of purpose, poor communication, or a lack of outlets for personal expression.
Creating a space where your employees can express their personality and learn more about their team can help improve employee engagement and retention.
Create better employee-management relationships
Water cooler chat provides a way for employees and managers to mingle on a personal level, creating a bond between levels within an organization’s hierarchy. It also brings top-level leaders into contact with their team members on the ground (something they can also accomplish with skip-level meetings).
Building up this relationship is critical, with manager communication issues being one of the top reasons employees left a job before the pandemic. With communication increasing in the move to remote work, there was a noticeable decrease in manager-related job departures.
Our brains need breaks. Providing ways for your remote employees to enjoy break time throughout their workday helps show them that breaks are encouraged and that deep, uninterrupted focus for eight hours every day isn’t expected.
To further prove the need for breaks, Microsoft conducted a study where some participants had meetings back-to-back and others had quick breaks in between each meeting.
Unsurprisingly, the participants with breaks were less stressed, more engaged, and more relaxed throughout their meetings.
Breaks are necessary. And supporting virtual team bonding through water cooler talk, or similar non-work conversations, helps encourage them. But remember, keep it async (more on this in a moment).
A note on proximity bias
One in two employees want a hybrid work model, but proximity bias is a real concern in hybrid organizations. Based on the mere exposure effect, proximity bias is our tendency to favor individuals who are physically closer to us, or who we see more often, over others.
It’s a bias responsible for a number of organizational woes, including presenteeism, declining mental wellbeing, and wage gaps.
This is why switching to an asynchronous-first communication policy can ensure that everyone on your team feels included, regardless of whether they’re in the office or remote.
Leaders’ focus on water cooler chat has been held as an excuse for companies to avoid remote work. It’s also what’s causing some leaders to itch just enough to “go hybrid.”
The truth is you can create that intentional space for collaboration, where innovative brainstorms do happen, in an async workplace (we have an article on it here). You also have to recognize this is a separate, deliberate time than the time allotted to water cooler talk.
As we’ve said, water cooler talk isn’t that creative powerhouse leaders think it is. But it is one more thing your company should be conducting asynchronously. Let’s talk more about that.
How to facilitate asynchronous water cooler talk in your remote team
Teams who aren’t using async communication likely already have too many meetings on their calendars—some studies show up to 21.5 hours per week are spent in meetings—and you don’t want water cooler conversations to add even more time out to their schedule.
To help spontaneous chat happen remotely, you need to formally design your informal communications. Here’s how to do that.
Use online tools dedicated to facilitating water cooler chat
There are a number of online tools that help you implement better water cooler chat within your organization—and with more than just real-time video calls.
The first is Yac. Use Yac to hold asynchronous voice discussions for various icebreakers with your team.
With Yac’s voice messaging platform, you can preserve the human element of an office without everyone interrupting their workday and meeting up in real time. Colleagues can send each other voice notes to peruse in their own time, they can react to messages with emojis, and screen share what they’re working on.
You can set up a “virtual coffee room” group where team members can pop in and leave messages about their weekend or ask questions that other team members can respond to when they’re on break.
Or, you can keep conversations between two colleagues in 1-on-1 rooms.
Another option is Donut, a Slack integration that helps your team have more fun with work communication.
With Donut, you can choose between a number of different prompts and water cooler chat templates that the app will automatically send to a specified channel, helping to create more asynchronous conversations throughout the workday—and helping your team get to know each other a little bit better.
Kona is another option that helps boost morale in your company by creating little check-ins to see how everyone is doing.
Another Slack integration tool, Kona has several different use cases, from checking in with how your team feels each morning to encouraging support and camaraderie between co-workers.
Corine Tan, CEO of Kona, told us:
"Kona facilitates opportunities for bonding and fun between teammates that might otherwise be missing in a remote setting. It's simple--a few emoji clicks and a line of context. With that, you get a window into someone's day and a jumping-off point for deeper conversations.
When you're working remotely, the small moments and ‘How are you?’s require intentionality. We give leaders that little nudge to get started. When you consistently check in with others, you build the trust and rapport necessary for great collaboration and hard conversations."
Create a “creativity club”
We’ve all heard of book clubs, but what about something a bit more inclusive? A “creativity club” allows you to read books, listen to albums, watch movies or TV shows, check out podcasts, and more.
Select some kind of optional entertainment, then create a discussion group, so everyone can talk about their thoughts, their likes, dislikes, favorite parts, and least-favorite parts.
Set a new prompt each week for your team to join in on. But consider leading the charge and participating with each creative outlet so the project doesn’t get stale and stop getting participants.
For example, at New Zealand-based agency Strategy Collective, they host a range of social clubs face-to-face, from theater clubs to sports and games nights.
In a distributed remote team, this could look like games that can be played at any time across borders (e.g., Chess or Words With Friends) or watching a recording of a broadway show and chatting about it in your async group (e.g., Hamilton).
Hold challenges for your team to participate in
Create challenges for your team to record or participate in. Some of these could be for prizes, or they could just be friendly competition.
Some competition ideas are:
- Pages/books read
- Gaming (e.g., Wordle)
Have fun with it. You can have team members video themselves to participate or simply keep track of progress in an online channel accessible by your whole team.
The best part is that these challenges can be done on everyone’s own time rather than by joining together at the same time, allowing for flexibility in your water cooler chats.
Create a virtual bingo board
Who doesn’t love bingo? Create your own virtual bingo game to share with your team based on trending remote work lingo and work styles. Or base it off of things they likely experience in their day-to-day roles, like certain email greetings or sign-offs.
It’s easy to carry this out asynchronously. Send players their Bingo board and see who has the most squares ticked by the end of the week (or who sends a Yac screen share revealing their Bingo squares first).
Putting together games like this helps your team feel more connected while still having some fun competition. Gamifying the work experience helps make it more enjoyable.
Start a water cooler channel in your team communication app
Your initial plan can be as simple as creating a group chat or discussion forum in your team communication app only for informal water cooler chat. Encourage team members to regularly check in to respond to other messages as well as start their own discussions.
This can be a great way for employees to find common interests and learn more about remote co-workers that they might otherwise not find out.
Send out weekly prompts or questions for your team to answer
If you’ve created a water cooler channel or group chat and you notice that it’s not often active, send out weekly prompts or questions that help to act as icebreakers and facilitate conversations.
This is especially helpful if the water cooler channel is newer and your team isn’t quite used to having this extra outlet for non-work-related conversations.
Ask questions like, “What is your favorite book/movie/artist?” or “What is your favorite thing to do on your days off?”
Or send out prompts that get people thinking, such as “What three items would you bring to a deserted island?” or “What does your perfect day look like?”
Helping to engage your team with casual conversation starters can make virtual water cooler chat feel more inviting for your shier employees, who may be less likely to create their own posts or conversations.
Water cooler talk is not just mindless chatter that detracts from getting work done. It’s an important way for your team to connect with one another, fostering better relationships and improved productivity.
Leaders should recognize that water cooler talk and collaboration chats are entirely different, but you can still create deliberate opportunities and spaces for each intention.
When trying to establish an asynchronous work culture, you don’t want to force synchronous water cooler and team-building activities on your employees, nor do you want to avoid it altogether. With Yac, you can facilitate asynchronous water cooler talk and improve employee relations.