Most employees new to remote work miss one major thing about their old office life: impromptu conversations with co-workers. Meanwhile, their managers worry about the impact of remote work on their team’s camaraderie and relationships with colleagues across the organization. A game night or team-building event isn’t always the solution. Just like in real life, it takes more than an occasional date to build a relationship.
What associations need is a workplace culture that creates opportunities for what Steve Jobs calls “casual collisions and spontaneous meetings.” You need to build watercooler moments into your team’s virtual work life.
Who’s Struggling with Remote Work
People working from home miss the random meetups in the reception area, hallways, kitchen, and restroom. They miss impromptu invitations to grab a coffee or lunch, and chats in the conference room before a meeting starts.
Young professionals are having a harder time than most. 95% of Gen Z and 93% of millennial employees report difficulty working from home because of the pandemic.
They miss out on opportunities to watch, listen (overhear), and learn. Working remotely, they don’t have models for behavior in front of them. In the office, they could pick up on things, like personalities, politics, and culture. They had a chance to figure out:
- How people work
- How people at different levels talk to each other
- Who’s friendly with whom
- Who has a real open door
- Who’s approachable for advice and feedback
New employees have the same issues. They’ll be the “new guy” for a long time since people don’t see their faces every time they walk by their cubicle. They miss out on icebreaking hallway banter. They struggle with putting names and faces together and getting a sense of people’s personalities.
What a Virtual Watercooler Brings to Your Team
With virtual watercooler practices in place, staff members get the chance to build community and solidarity, and feel like they’re all part of the same team. They don’t feel so alone, which is especially important when so many people are experiencing social isolation.
Studies have found that office watercoolers help employees share their risky ideas and intentions, produce better research, and gain a 10% to 15% bump in productivity. Like its physical counterpart, the virtual watercooler is an idea exchange where employees learn what others are working on and hear different perspectives.
A virtual watercooler improves cross-team collaboration. It gives employees the opportunity to develop rapport and relationships outside their team. These emotional bonds build trust and help shallow ties become deeper ties. A virtual watercooler also reduces barriers between management and staff. Employees see that C-suite executives are normal people too, with many of the same challenges and interests.
How to Create a Virtual Watercooler for Your Employees
A remote workplace needs social rituals that lead to spontaneous, accidental conversations and connections in a no-pressure environment.
Many organizations have one or more Slack or Teams channels dedicated to watercooler conversations. Start each day with a discussion prompt.
- Who’s your favorite member this week and why?
- What are you most proud of?
- What famous person (alive or dead) would you like to meet, and what would you like to learn from them?
You can find lots of icebreaker resources online or install a tool like Watercooler by Donut, which posts prompts in Slack to get conversations going.
Create watercooler sub-channels, for example, book lovers or wellness. Watch the main channel for ideas and consult with staff to see what merits its own sub-channel.
- Leave a Zoom meeting open all day for coffee chats, coffee breaks, lunchtimes, mid-afternoon recharges, and happy hours. Entice people into this room with a fun or interesting resource, video, or shared activity.
- Schedule weekly discussions related to association and industry issues. Tap your employees for ideas.
- Invite employees to lunch with the CEO. Select people from various levels and departments for each lunch.
- See if people are interested in joining a book club. Offer one that focuses on fiction and one that focuses on professional growth.
- Arrange lunch and learns. Ask an internal team or staff from another association to talk about an innovative or remarkable project.
- Schedule live mastermind and brainstorming sessions. Or use a whiteboard tool like Miro with its virtual sticky notes so people can participate when they have time.
Arrange coffee breaks between randomly (or not so randomly) assigned employees, including the C-suite. Many professional match-making tools are on the market now, including Hallway, which creates spontaneous video chats in Slack that anyone can join.
Virtual Social Events
Host monthly social events where employees can hang out and see colleagues from other departments. If you have a large staff, repeat the event on consecutive days, each time with different teams.
These days, the options are unlimited, including murder mysteries, cooking/baking, cocktail mixing, and beverage tastings. You can even ship Bob Ross watercolor painting kits to your team, stream the accompanying video during a virtual happy hour while employees follow along painting and chatting.
Onetime events are fun, but a permanent virtual watercooler is best for developing and deepening relationships among employees. Contact us if you need help with planning and implementing virtual watercooler practices for your remote team.