That casual coffee moment during the break of an important meeting, those moments when you bump into somebody in the office getting in the elevator together? We call them ‘water cooler moments’. The moments in which casual conversations between co-workers occur around that one location where people from various departments meet, be it a break room, lobby or around the water cooler. Since hybrid working seems here to stay, businesses around the globe have struggled to translate these precious moments into an online equivalent. We observed, we learned, we took notes and now we share with you: the five keys to successfully create your own virtual water cooler.
Let’s dive in.
First, let’s ask ourselves why we would need to put effort in recreating these seemingly insignificant and mundane moments? Well, believe it or not, but they are the glue that keeps your company together since they provide and represent the human connection between employees. “Teamwork makes the dream work”, right? Cheesy quotes aside, relationships among employees really are fundamental when working together to achieve a common goal. And there’s even more to it. Water cooler moments transform a formal situation into an informal and casual setting. The perfect environment in which food for thought can be coined, complex matters can be processed, and new ideas can be tossed. It allows a state of mind that improves knowledge sharing and will therefore help people in your organization to achieve better results. Worth trying, right?
Back to business. How?
1. Loosen up
Let’s start right there. In order to encourage human interaction, forcing things onto people is certainly not going to work. The aim of a virtual water cooler should be to facilitate (not recreate) water cooler moments and conversations. So, when recreating this environment, make sure to leave the choice for a chat and the choice for a discussion partner up to the people. This allows the water cooler moment to occur in a more natural way.
2. Untangle messy workplace communication
Today’s average office environment does not exactly suffer from a lack of communication channels. Between a nearly constant drip of emails, sequent video calls, Slack exchanges and WhatsApp group talk, we bounce around inefficiently and end up entangled in the middle. In order to create a successful virtual water cooler, it is necessary to define and demarcate communication channels, and clearly distinguish the (in)formality of each channel. Keep it neat and allow people to understand where to go for formal conversations and where for informal chats.
Sidenote: include online areas designated to casual chats in which – all – employees from different departments can meet. Especially those people that are not on each other’s team, and usually do not cross paths while working, should be able to meet online, the way they used to in the office.
The rapid digitalization of the workspace has really flipped things upside down. Colleagues who you would normally keep at a professional distance, now suddenly end up in your home through video calls. On the other hand, casual and personal conversations are now suddenly planned and enforced in scheduled ‘Friday Funday” meetings, in an attempt to maintain the Water Cooler setting. Safe to say, this imposed informality between co-workers may feel a little awkward. “Friday Fundays’ to share weekly personal updates might work for some, but not for all. Every team is different, every person needs different things, so when recreating a water cooler, talk with and listen to the people while you try to find something that works for your team.
4. Get Physical
After all that is set up and done, it is time to think outside the (online) box. Fixed behind a computer, one can try as hard as they want, but some part of the human being is always going to feel stuck. We often tend to think that a water cooler state of mind is in the head, but it would be wrong to assume the body detached from it. Physical movement is what actually influences it significantly. As opposed to sitting behind your desk during an important formal meeting, try and take a walk outside during a brainstorm meeting instead. This will naturally set a casual tone for the whole meeting and bring everyone in a water cooler state of mind. Movement as such has also proven to enhance creativity and focus, so that’s a double win!
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