We can all agree that the workplace has changed forever, as we now move closer to a hybrid workforce becoming the status quo. The hybrid model undoubtedly represents a different reality for many, but different may even be better, with many employees feeling the benefits of working remotely. But one challenge that companies must still come to terms with is recreating spontaneous interactions between coworkers. And so, I wonder, has technology met its match in trying to replicate the “Water Cooler moment”?
My own views on Water Cooler moments are perhaps biased due to fond memories of a faraway land. In the office I worked in back in the Irish city of Galway, we were no more than 50 yards from the front door of Taaffe’s Bar, one of the city’s favorite watering holes. As a result, many of my chance workplace encounters with colleagues took the form of “fancy a pint after work?”.
But what are Water Cooler moments?
They are simple sparks of brilliance (yes in Ireland: pints = brilliance), serendipitous exchanges that take place without any planning. It is where employees share the news (gossip!) of the day. The conversation could be about work, or some inside knowledge of a project, heck it could even involve sharing a photo of a colleague’s new puppy. The point is, that information is casually shared in a meaningful way, often resulting in a jolt of innovation. After all, all business value starts with an idea, many of which are born at the Water Cooler. Studies have shown that Water Cooler moments not only strengthen corporate culture but they also allow employees to share their risky ideas and intentions, produce better research, and gain a 10% to 15% bump in productivity. The great Steve Jobs understood the importance of these casual collisions as far back as 1996, by specifically designing the layout of Pixar’s headquarters to cultivate “serendipitous personal encounters”. But serendipity requires shared structural features in the form of the same building, a shared coffee pot or in this case a water cooler. When you remove the structures, you lose the serendipity.
So how are companies trying to replicate these moments digitally? The pandemic-induced shift to remote work has reinforced the value of enterprise platforms like Slack, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc. and while they have all been invaluable in allowing employees to communicate, they are seen primarily as a replacement to formal meetings, no matter how much companies try to use them for informal “chats”. These tools are too scheduled to feel spontaneous. A virtual Water Cooler needs to break down bureaucratic barriers in the workplace, in the same way as its physical counterpart. There are currently many companies trying, but the following examples give a taste of how technology is stepping in to provide a more targeted approach to replicating the H2O station.
First up is the aptly named Hallway, which works as a Slack plug-in, allowing employees to schedule 10-minute “catch-up” video chats within specific Slack channels. The algorithm generates a video-chat link every couple of hours. The chat only lasts 10 minutes, and is meant to replace those spontaneous, break-room and hallway encounters. The company sights IBM and Salesforce amongst its major clients and claims to facilitate 14 conversations per employees every day that wouldn’t otherwise happen in a digital world. The below image is an example of how its 1:1 roulette-style breakout works.
Yammer provides a sense of community by operating like an internal social network. It’s a Microsoft Teams plug-In that “nudges” co-workers towards chance discovery in a way that normal chat tools don’t. A key feature of Yammer is that groups are open by default, which allows employees to easily explore and discover results from outside their regular siloed teams. Social media is a good example of how effective matching algorithms can be in nudging us towards suggested friends/connections and Yammer works in much the same way through its ‘Suggested Groups’ feature. Yammer also has a social media-like feed in the form of the ‘Discovery’ feature, giving employees a sense of what’s trending across the network and allows them to casually drop in to a conversation or group that interests them, like a company-specific Clubhouse.
Now this one is cool. Who remembers Sims? (showing my age here), the PC game that allowed us to create beautiful homes and watch our avatar families go about their daily lives at our direction? Well keep that in mind as I introduce you to Sophya. Sophya tries to recreate the Water Cooler in a way described as a “World of Workcraft”. It works as system of avatars walking around 3D workplaces that can be modeled after real offices. You get to walk up to your colleague’s avatar to initiate a conversation, enabling the real-life counterpart to appear. What’s more, should an interesting idea come to light, Sophya provides the ability to screen-share or even white-board together, allowing fully-fledged collaboration emanating from a casual collision. Could this even work better than the physical Water Cooler? I don’t remember a white board beside the Water Cooler in my old office.
However, even with these technologies, the challenge of recreating Water Cooler moments remains, because in a remote environment, they take a little more work. For now, companies must find a way that works for them, and while one of the above examples may provide a temporary answer, they may only serve the same function as aspirin does for a headache, offering short-term relief from a potentially longer-term issue. A sustainable solution likely involves a fundamental behavioral change that technology can complement rather than substitute.
But by whatever means, companies must find a way to authentically recreate these moments, and not just for those impromptu post-work pints with a colleague in Taaffe’s Bar, but to restore the camaraderie and friendship lost in the transition to hybrid work which is so vital for future success.
Does your company go out of their way to try and recreate Water Cooler style interactions in the workplace, and do any of them work particularly well?