Gather Round The Digital Water Cooler

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”?

Collaboration in the remote workplace is becoming more siloed

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.

Hallway

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

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.

Yammer app for Microsoft Teams

Sophya

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.

Honorable mentions: Donut, UnRemot, Tandem, Minglr, WaterCooler

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?

11 comments

  1. Conor raises a lot of interesting points in terms of the serendipity that the work from home culture provides. What these apps fail to realize is that what makes spontaneous conversations happen is physically moving from your desk which is hard to replicate from a remote work scenario. What I think there is potential for would-be VR headsets. You would be able to have something closer to the water cooler appear through a virtual location and it would spark a more spontaneous conversation. Microsoft’s Hololens provides a really good potential solution here. We will see what happens as the work from home trend continues well into 2021.

  2. ritellryan · ·

    I think this has been the hardest challenge of the whole concept of work from home. As someone who tries to keep distractions away while I am in a “flow” state at work, my typical day is moving around a lot and can run into people, say hello, and even if the conversation has nothing to do with work, i am still being productive in the elevator or walking down the stairs. Now that time is used cleaning the apartment or doing laundry, so still productive, just in a different way :). However, we have hired a bunch of new people on our team, I didn’t even know we had hired them until 2 weeks after it happened, and I don’t think I have talked to either of them in the ~6 weeks they have been employed. Some teams try to do a virtual happy hour, but never do you have a whole group together in 1 conversation, it usually splits into several making it super awkward. As we move to a hybrid model I will be curious to see the demographics of the people that go back more often than others, as that will have a trickle down effect too (e.g. if none of the management is there, the benefit of going in does diminish and then fewer people go in and then there is no value), so it will be interesting to see how the next 1-2 years unfolds.

  3. sayoyamusa · ·

    Awesome post again, Conor! This is one of the most relevant topics for me as my company is apparently struggling to figure out the optimal way. It had been natural for us to have informal brain storming sessions over drinking (coffee during the day and alcohol after work,) so I wonder how my colleagues currently manage to set up an environment which encourages idea generation.
    I did a quick Google search on virtual offices and was surprised to find that there are so many similar tools. Honestly, I can’t tell the difference among them… You raised a great point that the technology is just a tool and what matters most is employees’ mindsets and behaviors. There is no one-size-fits-all solution because each company has its own unique organizational culture. It also depends on the nature of your business such as which department/industry you belong to, what role are expected etc. Declining water cooler chat opportunities might not put significant impacts on upfront profits but could be a critical problem for long-term. I appreciate your insightful blog has made me think about this important agenda.
    Also, I’d love to enjoy Guinness pint and watch how people are discussing at Taaffe’s Bar in my future trip to Galway!!

  4. I doubt that any tech can fully recreate the Water Cooler experience. It’s too much forced serendipity. I’d actually say a Twitter hashtag (or list) may be a better solution. It’s when people aren’t *trying* to serendipitously connect that they do. I’ve actually had a bunch of random productive connections on Twitter over the years.

  5. shaneriley88 · ·

    Very insightful post, Conor. It’s fascinating to think of the steps developer have take to build out these apps and firms have taken to employ them. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think any app could compete with the fundamental human interaction over a horrid cup of office coffee. I like your thought of a hybrid solution. My firm has used similar apps and digital means of developing avenues for inter-office socialization: fitness challenges, Yammer, and other apps. What I miss most is the developmental networking that can come along with “water cooler” moments. It’s hard for a senior person to notice a burnt-out associate/ officer in an online setting. Even if you could “see” the other person, you still wouldn’t be able to replicate the “walk for a pint” or stepping out for a sandwich. I’m curious to hear how younger generations will take to such technologies.

    This post also brought to mind the loss of work related routines. Remember early on during COVID you’d see memes off people simulating the subway ride in their shower? Ryan’s comment on “flow” state brought that to mind. I feel like my morning gym + coffee routine was nearly just as important to me in achieving a productive flow state as my watercooler moments were for my office social interactions. It’s been neat over COVID how some people have returned to just picking up the phone and making a call vs text at the end of day to chat.

    Side note: Oddly enough, sailing ships used to keep the daily water supply in a keg called scuttlebutt. The term has since become synonymous with gossip and banter – both of which I also miss.

  6. olivia_levy8 · ·

    Great post! I have used an app similar to Sophya called Kumospace that is that same idea of being in a virtual room and having proximity based conversations depending on who is in your “spotlight”. Although this is an innovative solution, I do think those authentic human interactions as we have seen with COVID, are not the same via virtual platforms. A good friend of mine started her first job in consulting post grad in May 2020 and has only worked in the pandemic, and says this is by far the biggest struggle, especially being new. I would be very curious to hear if anyone has a success story in recreating these Water Cooler moments, as it is definitely tougher than it may seem. Thanks for sharing another impressive blog!

  7. alexcarey94 · ·

    Great post! I think all these technologies could help encourage more informal interaction among co workers. I still feel though tech can not replace the true water cooler moments and bonds formed in the office from the sheer fact that you are at your lap top. Even during coffee chats or team meetings I feel distracted and can not connect as deeply with a person when emails are coming in and team members are pinging asking questions- it is hard to put that all aside. One cool tool my team has used (if you have a teams page with a large audience) is the icebreaker plug in. This each week pairs you with another person on the team to chat and potential to set up a short introduction- it has worked well for us to getting to know some of the stakeholders you may works with or need a favor from before the ask occurs.

    I do wonder in the future if we stay to this work from home or hybrid model if co-workers begin to fall into a new category. At my office, pre COVID, many people formed super close relationships from informally meeting at happy hours or at lunch combining different groups of friends. This might be people that you would not work in your day to day setting with. Heck I actually met my current roommate and best friend when I first started at work- and I feel in the tech environment that close of a bond would not of been formed. I also found a stat that “22% of US married couples had met at work”. https://www.bamboohr.com/blog/8-workplace-romance-facts-need-know-right-now/#:~:text=Just%20consider%20this%3A%2022%20percent,(or%20will%20admit%20to).

    Will this be a shocking fact in 10 years when we are all working from home or hybrid?

    1. conoreiremba · ·

      22%!? I honestly am surprised by how high that is when I think through my buddies who are married and how they met their spouses (a lot were probably in Taafes Bar that I mention above :-)). But then again I think that number is only likely to increase in the future. Tying in with @lisahersh comment below, today’s generation is much more comfortable interacting online and so to your point, I don’t think that stat will be less surprising in the future as workplace romance will be unlikely to suffer at the hands of the hybrid model. I think the fact that people are meeting less in person will be offset by how comfortable we have all become interacting online. Also in that article, I was more blown away by the fact that 1 in 6 workplace relationships involve an affair. Let’s hope that’s one trend that can be broken by the hybrid model.

  8. lisahersh · ·

    Thanks for sharing these tools! I’d never heard of them before, but I definitely understand their appeal. It might just be me, but I think I would find a lot of these nudges to socialize “serendipitously” to be annoying… In an office space, you can know whether it’s a good time to chat casually because the person is physically located in a nonworking location (e.g., watercooler, lunch table with no laptop in front of them, not in an office with a closed-door) and/or possess the body language that indicates they are open to being interrupted from whatever they’re working on. In a work-from-home environment, there’s no way to have those social behavioral cues readily apparent. And when you schedule time to have casual non-work-related interactions it loses that magical “serendipitous” feeling that is hoping to be recreated.

    I also feel like physicality of serendipity is a big part of it that is missing too. Environment has a huge impact on how you feel, think, and behave. Trying to have people feel serendipitous on their couch or in their home office is a lot harder than at the water cooler or in the hall. You associate casual interactions and meeting new people with hallways, lunchlines, and well the watercooler, but not so much in your own living room… Although, I have a feeling this might not be as big of a factor for future generations given that they are growing up in a time where making connections online is the norm.

  9. kellywwbcedu · ·

    Great post, Conor! This was a fun read. The various attempts to keep the serendipitous personal encounters alive through apps like these really illustrates companies’ efforts at maintaining healthy workplace environments, even when working remotely. While these virtual encounters may not necessarily equate to their in-person counterparts, I do believe that they still have potential to positively impact people and allow for some quality time with co-workers. I think the impact these apps will have is largely dependent upon the individual’s openness to using them, their desire to connect with colleagues, as well as their tech-savviness. It was cool reading about these apps– I thought Sophya was particularly advanced (and you’re right– it definitely reminded me of Sims, too!). I’m curious to see if anyone I know has utilized any of them and/or knows anyone who has.

  10. I agree with the idea that Teams and Zoom are not great substitutes for the type of in-person water cooler talk that we would have in the office. It feels formal to have a meeting on the calendar, sometimes far in advance, that is designed to actually be informal. I think these app ideas are a good start to try to make those virtual meetings less formal and more spontaneous. I think its hard to know who is available for a casual chat when we’re all working from home. When we were in the office it was easier to tell who was free and wanted to talk. I think having the ability to know who’s available to catch up with people is a big first step in having virtual water cooler talk feel more normal.

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