So, how do we start?
Our first stop in understanding anything is always google, and a search for ‘virtual water cooler’ will not disappoint. Pages and pages of articles telling you why you need one, and how to create your very own virtual water cooler. It’s fun to dive in to those articles, and I personally felt obligated to before writing this article.
You don’t need to, but feel free to have a go. This’ll still be here.
I want to try a slightly different tack, starting with what I felt a water cooler meant to me in a physical office. I will come around to how I think those lessons can be transferred to the hybrid and remote world we live in now.
In the real world
A real water cooler is a dispenser for cold and/or sparkling water that is typically placed in a shared area of the office. Such a simple definition, but it’s become a well known term for a reason:
It’s a place for connection between people, no matter how brief.
When two people meet at the water cooler, it’s considered polite to make the minimum of small talk but there is also the opportunity to extend the chat if both want to, and anyone in the office can also decide that now is a perfect time for a break and join in, without feeling they’re intruding - they’re just getting a water too, after all.
Conversation may fizzle out quickly or extend another five minutes, or someone has that spark of inspiration for the problem they’ve been stuck on for hours.
So far, I’d say that gives us these properties:
- A location away from your desk
- Common ground, unowned by anyone
- Likely easy to access for all
- A social expectation to at least say ‘hi’
- An implicit assumption that anyone there might need a healthy break away from work
- No lower or uppers bounds on time - leave when you want, stay a bit longer if you like
- Hopefully a space where you’re not a disturbance to others (your office may vary)
- The default is standing
- More may join in or drop out at any time
Which is great! We can see other areas with similar properties:
- The coffee machine
- The terrace - for the smokers especially
- The coffee table or couches
- The kitchenette
- The coffee/sandwich shop across the road
- Bumping in to a colleague at the train station
I’m sure you can think of more. I think we can consider these as ‘water coolers’ for the purposes of this post. There are other places we gather in the workplace and might also have a quick chat:
- Meetings rooms before and after meetings
- At our desks
However, I am quite happy to argue that these are still working/focus areas with different expectations. Walking up to someone at their desk is disruptive whereas it is accepted and almost expected at a water cooler.
How can we replicate this in the virtual world?
It’s an unfortunate truth that the real world and the virtual world can never map one-to-one.
Sometimes this is in favour of the virtual: I’ve got 5 minutes between two meetings. I only need 30 seconds to close one video call and to open another. Contrast that with having to move from one building to another and climbing three flights of stairs.
Sometimes this is in favour of the real: Most people communicate with much more than their face. This is lost over a video call.
So my goal is to use the real world as an analogy, and try to divine how that might look like in the very different environment of the virtual. Here is my best effort:
Advertise availability, don’t interrupt
The act of walking to the water cooler is a discreet indicator that I’m taking a break from work, and I may be amenable to a quick chat; in order to signal this, I haven’t had to disturb anyone or intrude on their space.
On the other hand, if I’m sitting at my desk, it’s likely I’m engrossed in some task and a focus-breaking distraction might not be appreciated, but it’s also possible that I’m stuck and would love five minutes away from the problem to reset. The problem is that both of those look the same, so we’re never sure if we should interrupt a colleague or not.
Any solution should err on the side of advertising “I’m available”, rather than making an assumption that everyone is available by default.
What doesn’t work: Calling people ad-hoc, scheduling chats.
Remove work distractions
Imagine walking to the water cooler, starting a chat and seeing a stream of Slack/e-mail notifications scrolling down the top right corner of your vision. That’s not for me.
A healthy break is a genuine break from such distractions, and it’s even better when you’ve physically moved away from your desk.
What doesn’t work: Being in front of your computer, constantly flicking from conversation to chats to…
You can do something
In all the water cooler-esque situations, it’s often combined with doing something: Grabbing a water, tea or coffee; making a sandwich; going for a cigarette.
In the real world, I might spend 10-15 minutes in the kitchen preparing my lunch and simply happy to chat with whoever wanders in. I’ll take some socialising while making a sandwich over worrying about getting back in front of the laptop.
What doesn’t work: Video chat. I’m either tied to my desk for the call, or someone gets to enjoy my kitchen ceiling while I make a sandwich.
In the real world as in the virtual world, scheduled meetings can be seen as compulsory (even when marked as optional) and it’s often seen as polite to last the scheduled time. Likewise, it’s impossible to plan when a natural break moment will occur between focus tasks.
Conversations can and should happen at any time; no one should feel left out if now just isn’t the right moment for them.
What doesn’t work: Top down edicts on tooling. Common tooling is great for email and calendar, but some interactions are simply unstructured, and that should be embraced.
Fluid groups and equality of participation
There is no leader and participants can change at any time. The person who first walked up to the water cooler, might be the first to walk away, leaving behind three people who’ve just discovered a shared interest in soap carving.
That shouldn’t be the end; a conversation should keep going as long as at least two people are talking. Whenever they joined in.
What doesn’t work: Scheduled meetings, as it’s unfortunately true people that people inevitably organise their time around the ‘scheduled fun times’. It becomes another todo item.
The benefits of connected people
For those who’ve made it to here, my views probably aren’t surprising: there is a noticeable benefit to creating the space for these conversations to happen. Luckily I’m not alone here, and can back this up with an appeal to authority. The benefits and drawbacks of office-based/hybrid/remote working have been explored for many years, but COVID has resulted in a surge of studies, anecdotal experiences and opinions.
I’d love to do a longer blog post to dig in to that, but for this one, I’ll just leave you with some quotes that resonated with me recently:
Mind is an outstanding mental health charity in the UK, and much of the article Five ways to wellbeing resonates with me. Even tackling a sliver of that is worthwhile. I think we can all agree with the headings:
A genuine water cooler experience should cover at least some of that.
In this abstract lies a lovely quote that draws a nice line between different modes of communication, and the benefits of truly unstructured discussion time:
Typically, when peers are working together on a task that requires one to direct the other, it creates a natural imbalance in the conversation, where the person in the leadership role ends up doing most of the talking. But if the participants also have unstructured time available, the person leading the task-based conversation can use the opportunity to pull back on their contributions, essentially yielding air time during small talk to the other participant.
Here’s some MIT research focussed on cohesion summarised:
What we found was that cohesion among employees, your “tribe,” if you will, is one of the largest factors in both productivity and job satisfaction.
I don’t want to bore you, so just one final quote from a lovely article by Paul Levy:
It’s more likely that the real virtual water cooler will pop up outside of the official channels. And that is because, in highly planned organisations, chance and the sudden surprises become valuable – a kind of cultural good – for the very reason that no one from higher up designed or planned them. Spontaneous, informal communication is clearly valuable for business, but it takes place in liminal spaces.
If you want to rediscover in a virtual world the benefits of what the water cooler has been achieving in the physical workplace for decades, then control is the enemy for the simple reason you can’t push this on people. They’ll be too busy looking over their shoulder to see who is pushing them.
We need to connect, but we need to feel that we are connecting without it being a force from above.
Where I sell you Walk Together
We talk about serendipitous and spontaneous conversaions a lot because we feel that’s been the big missing link in building healthy remote and hybrid working environments. Our goal is to deliver an unobtrusive app that achieves the above, and no more. Conversation prompts, icebreakers and games aren’t on our roadmap; we just want you to connect and have a chat.
I do hope you come away understanding some of the design decisions we’ve made. We believe we have something unique, and it’d be lovely if you give it a go.
I’m not asking you to give up slack, or gather.town. But maybe next time you pop out for a coffee, or go to the bakery, you’ll think of us.
Feel free to tell me that I’m wrong on Twitter as that’s the purpose of the blue bird as far as I’m concerned.
– With hugs from Neil