The Water Cooler Matters

“The water cooler” is a common phrase used to represent a work-related space where informal conversations occur during breaks or in passing. Even in a traditional office, the water cooler isn’t necessarily a literal term. It can be a break room, hallway, coffee bar or any space where informal conversation occurs daily. These spaces are frequently where organizations place bulletin boards to communicate company news, social events and training opportunities.

Learning and development (L&D) professionals spend valuable time delving into the formal training needed for ideal performance, but they may have overlooked the informal social learning that occurs at the water cooler. These conversations support company culture and transmit what’s happening across teams, both horizontally and vertically. These conversations also help build a sense of belonging that reinforces commitment to each other and the company, combat stress, and build morale.

Humans are a social species, and the human mind needs breaks during the workday. In an office, people take breaks to get water (hence the water cooler), fresh air or lunch or to take a walk. They may only need to swivel their chair to chat with a coworker about an issue with a project, the latest industry news or the new photo on their desk. These informal discussions allow employees time to connect, collaborate and communicate in ways that can be challenging for a remote workforce.

The Virtual Water Cooler

As an L&D professional, supporting the well-being of employees in remote spaces can be difficult. Finding ways to virtually encourage water cooler culture is one way to manage change for newly remote employees. Don’t forget that you are trying to emulate an informal environment. Resist the urge to over-monitor so that employees feel relaxed enough to share and listen.

The virtual water cooler is a technology-based system that attempts to recreate that informal social learning environment to support connections with others in the company, collaborations across teams, and communications within and between different parts of the company. What’s unique about the virtual spaces used to support water cooler culture is that communications can be synchronous, as if they’re occurring on site, or asynchronous.

The technologies used will depend on each company’s current software and security needs, as well as what’s appropriate for the specific industry. Video calls are, perhaps, the most familiar method for remote employees. There are many platforms and apps that enable employees to collaborate on and share files, communicate company news and events, and connect with colleagues with similar interests.

The 3 Cs: Connect, Collaborate and Communicate

Let’s say you’ve chosen your technology and strategy for a virtual water cooler. The tool isn’t valuable unless employees are motivated to use it. Create opportunities to share talents, explore common interests or just “hang out” for no reason. Here are some examples:

    • Encourage employees to play games, such as online chess tournaments or trivia games, or chat about they games they play at home.
    • Sponsor fitness support groups to share successes and encouragement.
    • Encourage employees to share their talents by, for example, leading a daily meditation or playing music together.
    • Start book clubs that give employees a place to share what they are reading professionally or personally.
    • Schedule virtual coffee hours and lunch clubs.
    • Have monthly movies nights. These shared experiences can form a basis for future connections.
    • Encourage giving back to the community. Volunteering is a great way to connect. Organizing groups to give blood, feed the homeless or pick up litter supports individual connections and a culture of community involvement.
    • Support career growth with virtual mentor pairs that meet on a regular basis. Employees can sign on to be mentors or mentees (or both) by filling out information; then, you can match them based on their needs and goals.
    • Create weekly team challenges and competitions using trivia or puzzles to support group cooperation and help employees get to know people whom they may never otherwise have met.
    • Keep the bulletin board. There is a reason employee notices are posted in halls and break rooms; it’s where the employees are. Don’t leave employees to search their emails or a poorly designed hub page to find out about events and happenings at the company. A well-designed learning experience platform makes it easy for your workforce to find and access learning opportunities and other important company news.
    • Offer lunch-and-learn sessions or other engaging webinars with case studies or interesting guest speakers.

Virtual water coolers may not be new to companies that were already primarily remote, but even companies that have had virtual water coolers may find that their remote workforce feels more isolated in 2020. Ultimately, the technology you use, while important, isn’t as critical as how you use that technology to support your employees’ social and emotional well-being and growth. As an L&D professional, don’t forget to support informal learning opportunities and find ways to connect, collaborate and communicate virtually.