Create virtual watercooler moments for your work-from-home teams

The Business Exchange’s David Seinker on how to encourage interaction among work-from-home staff.

Every office – of the brick and mortar variety, that is – has had that one place where team members would casually congregate. Though widely recognised as “the watercooler”, in many instances it’s actually the coffee machine, the courtyard, the reception desk or randomly en route to the bathroom where these casual but all-important encounters occur.

The location is definitely less important than what these have come to represent over the years – the source of informal chats and collaborations that spark bright ideas, a place where company culture is truly manifested, and simply the ideal spot for hanging out with colleagues.

The rapid shift to remote work with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic last year affected just about every aspect of work and the workplace, with the absence of these watercooler conversations arguably among the biggest losses. It may not be the first loss that springs to mind in the context of remote work, but the reality is that these watercooler moments play an essential part in business success and innovation – providing that incalculable X-factor. 

During the latter part of 2020, it also became widely apparent that while employees enjoyed the flexibility and convenience of working from home, they missed the interaction with colleagues. In fact, a Back-to-Work Survey undertaken by The Business Exchange at the end of November saw the majority of respondents cite “interactions with other people” as the thing they most miss about the office. 

While it may be extremely challenging to engineer those accidental encounters that force interaction and strengthen relationships between co-workers, it’s certainly not impossible – and the rewards are guaranteed to outweigh the effort required. 

Don’t give up on communication

Email, text, WhatsApp, Slack, Zoom, voice calls (on the telephone!) – communication can be draining if not properly managed. But it’s these very tools that have allowed millions of employees around the world to continue working uninterrupted, while doing their part to help contain the spread of Covid-19.

It’s critical that we use the tools at our disposal to ensure that we chat, brainstorm, engage, discuss – and not just communicate. This could include setting up 15-minute video chat sessions between small groups, the objective of which is to … well, chat. Similarly, if you find yourself stuck on a problem or in need of a second opinion, consider setting up a virtual brainstorm session, or simply ping a colleague on Slack. The point to push home is the importance of using these applications for continued connection with others in the workplace, regardless of our physical location.  

Virtual coffee breaks 

Access to the communication tools mentioned above is only step one, however. Invariably, these channels are used to communicate about work-related matters. But the point of a watercooler moment is to have the random chat that naturally builds rapport.

Consider setting up virtual coffee breaks, dividing the team into smaller groups with the objective of meeting and talking – not about work per se, but about anything else: the weather, what’s in the news, weekend plans, what you’re watching on TV, or even a favourite childhood memory. The conversation will soon flow from there, helping to develop trust within the team.

Make it a set weekly arrangement and soon enough the team will probably look forward to this time-out, and really begin to value it. An added gesture from management’s side could be to give everyone a voucher to pay for a coffee to enjoy during the coffee break chat. 

Show and tell 

Learning about new things is always interesting, and is something that happens almost subliminally in a conventional office environment. It could be a recipe a colleague shares with a colleague and that others overhear and ask to be included, or someone discussing a new hobby that they’ve tried out at the weekend. Our world is smaller when we’re alone in front of a screen all day, which is why a game of Show and Tell is not only fun, but also informative.

Set aside an hour each week (or even every second week) and allow every member of the team a turn to take the virtual stage and tell the rest of the group about something that’s currently captured their attention. A Friday afternoon works well for this and there shouldn’t be too many rules or prescriptions (don’t make it feel like work). It could be something like sharing pictures of their thriving veggie garden or talking about their passion for house music – anything goes, as long as it’s about sharing something that excites you. 

A special place for pets! 

Pets are a big part of what excites many people, so why not dedicate a special chat box or Slack channel to sharing pictures and videos of cats, dogs, hamsters, rabbits, snakes, goldfish and every other non-human love interest! It’s sure to be a hit and, somehow, when we know about another’s furry (or scaly) friends, it makes us more empathetic and trusting of them. 

A hybrid office arrangement

Even with all the best communication tools at our fingertips, however, the need for in-person interaction remains. It’s clear that simply going back to the office as we knew it a mere year ago isn’t an immediate solution. The answer is more likely to lie in a flexible, hybrid model that allows staff to work from the office on certain days of the week, and remotely on others.  

The serviced office model coexists comfortably with this solution, which is growing in popularity across the globe. It’s an especially attractive alternative for companies concerned about being tied down by long, inflexible leases in the current fast-changing reality.

With the pandemic far from over, and the workplace landscape unlikely to ever return fully to what it was pre-Covid-19 anyway, business leaders will have to be strategic about many things, including recreating those watercooler moments. As human beings, we rely on interaction and engagement with others for our ideas, our energy and our wellbeing. The challenge we now face is how to effectively continue reaping these benefits in a remote working situation. Fortunately, there are many innovative ways in which to do so.