The pandemic accelerated our shift to digital workspaces at a pace none of us were fully prepared for. And while we’ve adapted with remarkable speed and agility, there is still work to be done to reach our optimal working rhythms under this new paradigm. Many of us have reprioritised what is important, both personally and professionally. The outcome? Hybrid and remote work are here to stay, an enduring part of how our organizations get things done.
While this can create immense flexibility, engagement and productivity, working away from the office has its challenges. According to Microsoft’s Work Trend Index, 43% of leaders say the greatest challenge of hybrid working is relationship building. While some teams know each other more personally through seeing each other’s households in the background, random drop-ins by kids during meetings and cats showing the camera some interesting angles, many companies struggle to translate these glimpses into each other’s private lives into something more meaningful. As we enter our next phase of work, how do we reintroduce those casual conversations that build a sense of teamwork, camaraderie and togetherness online, as if we were all once again swapping stories around the “watercooler”?
Two-thirds of organizations that have mastered transferring these watercooler moments to a hybrid environment have seen their productivity increase. Yet creating these moments virtually is far more nuanced than simply “lifting and shifting” what we did in the office. In fact, this approach can be far more detrimental than beneficial. Take for example, the informal coffee chat, a staple of pre-pandemic office life. Some organizations have simply taken this chat, scheduled in the time online for their team to meet and expected it to be a success. While well-intentioned, for nearly two-thirds of the workforce, these chats seem more like a chore than a genuine connection. If environment shapes our behavior, and our behavior shapes our culture, how can we show up differently to create these small instances of connection? Here are five tips to help create your virtual watercooler.
1. Choose Your Mediums
You will need more than just one medium to connect people no matter where they are. This might be through video collaboration platforms, but it also needs to be supplemented with something text-based and asynchronous. This may be channels in your favorite platform. The key is to have easy-to-use channels that are fun to engage with.
If you want to easily gauge the mood of the team, have a channel where everyone posts the emoji that best represents them today; if you want to build depth of connection, you might have a channel with a different question each week such as “What smell brings back fond childhood memories?”; if your team consists of parents or animal lovers, you might have a channel for them to post photos of their “co-workers.” Your mediums will depend on your organization, as well as what you are trying to achieve. These mediums need active management, especially in times of pressure, which is when people need the social moments most, but are inclined to disengage.
We often test our riskiest and more novel ideas at the watercooler, so make sure you have a place this can be done. It might be that you have a #MoonshotMonday where team members rotate turns at posting a big idea they want to test, and the rest of the team respond during the week with builds and challenges. Use your tools wisely — if you have employees in similar time zones or working rhythms, can you schedule time at the beginning or the end of day when the “do not disturb” function is off, and people are free to chat?
2. Build in Connection
When we meet in person, there are always side conversations as you enter the room. When we log in to a video call, we usually have our cameras off, continuing to deal with emails until the host joins, or worse, we stay in the waiting room until the host admits us. Once in the meeting, gazing at everyone, it feels awkward to attempt small talk. If you’re a host leaving people in the waiting room, consider putting up a question, quote or some other provocation for your team to consider while they wait. When you admit them, you can use a word cloud or the chat function to get their responses. Better yet, create a virtual watercooler by adding people to breakout rooms while others are entering the space, letting them know the purpose is to connect before we start the business of the day. Even five minutes of small chat away from the main room can be beneficial.
For those on-site, you can buddy them with off-site team members to have a 10-minute end of the day conversation. As the person in the office is packing up, they can simply do a quick phone call on their way out, catching your remote worker up on what’s been discussed in the office. If you have team members who rotate days in and out of the office, this can be a great way to keep everyone involved.
3. Build Your Skills
Communicating empathy, understanding and positive regard is easy when you are speaking to someone, but do you know how to do that in writing? Communicating with warmth through the written word is a different skill from the formal business writing many of us are comfortable with. For your watercooler chats, you may need to develop a different lexicon. GIFs, emojis and memes are all great informal ways to communicate without the spoken word, but can be shunned by more formal businesses. Yet the whole point of the watercooler is that it is informal, casual and fun, so create a space where you can use different types of expression, rather than just words.
This goes for the use of video as well. Just because your team is remote, employees shouldn’t have to spend all day in front of their screens in back-to-back meetings. Create a walking catchup with different people, where you both get to leave the screens behind and get out into the fresh air. We think differently when we are in motion, so moving while chatting can open whole new ways of conversing together.
4. Create Novelty and Play
Novelty creates joy from the unexpected and can enhance memory. Chances are that the things you remember best are the things that took you a little by surprise. How can you create novelty for yourself and your team? We often think of it when we are including icebreakers for meetings or training sessions, but how do we transfer this to the other mediums we are now working in? How do we create novelty in an asynchronous environment? One way is to have dedicated channels for social chats, where people can post what they are watching, reading or doing outside of work.
There is also a world of interesting online games out there to choose from. For example, you could invite your team to do a puzzle a month together, you can set it up online and people can drop in and do it at different times — and if they happen to drop in at the same time, it’s a perfect watercooler moment.
5. Strategically Connect Across Teams
When we were all together on-site, collaboration outside of our immediate team was often facilitated by the rhythms of the workday. You bump into someone from a different department as you walk down the hallway or in line at the café. You politely ask what they are working on and suddenly you are making connections to the work you are doing and coming up with a whole new perspective. These small sparks of interaction can have big impacts on innovation, connectivity and alignment across an organization, so it is important that we deliberately cultivate them in the hybrid world. This might be through real-time interactions like inviting different people to join your team for an informal chat or lunch, or it might be through one of your other selected mediums. Collaboration platforms sometimes have add-ons that connect different people from across the organization together for a short coffee chat. They can help randomize the interactions, but you could also do this by running an employee lottery where people opt in to be paired up for a virtual coffee.
In-person connection is still important from time to time but building up your virtual watercooler moments can help to foster connectivity, engagement and belonging. It is an important part of ensuring that we continue to see each other as complex, rich, interesting three-dimensional beings, and not two-dimensional caricatures. Like anything, we need to keep learning, ideating and improving. But with hybrid work here to stay, creating these small moments of humanity is worth the effort.