What replaces the water cooler in a hybrid team?

Prominent leaders are concerned about the impact of remote working on their team culture: “Maybe we are burning some of the social capital we built up,”  said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella last year.

Closer to home, I hear a consistent comment from leaders and their teams about a major downside of remote working – they suffer, or the work suffers, from the lack of a ‘water cooler’.

Water cooler conversations are those informal chats among office workers that take place around a water cooler. 

If I hear something interesting in the news, I might share it the next day with colleagues, given an informal opportunity to have a quick chat. The conversation might roam to other interesting tidbits, or key information.

There is something significant about the water cooler conversation. You can hear all kinds of things in a water cooler conversation that wouldn’t get written in an email or said at a meeting.

Working with a client recently, after they had implemented their Activity Based Working (ABW) environment, I was in their building with a few odds and sods to finish off without distraction from people who knew me. My ears pricked up when I heard two colleagues begin discussing their experiences of ABW and working from home. 

“It’s all the stuff you miss incidentally. Actually, you need more people here from the other team – they talk quite a bit. You need it for new people to learn stuff. To start a job here without a team around would be really difficult.”

Insightful! 

When I am working with organisations and teams, we discuss the value of the watercooler. Because it is these water cooler moments that facilitate a deeper understanding of each other, the team, the business or organisation and its changing context. 

There are many ways that you can create something almost the same online. Let me share three simple ideas with you.

  • Bump into each other online. Create the opportunity for happenstance. Teams do this through having an open channel on Slack or a Zoom room that is constantly accessible. People can go there any time, and see who they might bump into. 
  • Make time ‘in the margins’. Organisers of large conferences and international meetings know that it is the time on either side of the planned events, rather than the events themselves, where most of the real business gets done. Create unplanned time at the beginning and/or at the end of meetings.
  • Share a meal. Friday lunch anyone? At Transformed Teams, our end of year lunch last year was the same meal, ordered to each person’s address, spanning 11,000kms of the globe. We enjoyed a couple of hours talking about all kinds of things. As Deliveroo Australia chief executive Ed McManus says: “Often the real conversations and real ideas come up informally and often that’s over food.”
  • Plan to catch up – ‘plan to be unplanned’. The book Remote: Office not required was released eight years ago but this idea is just as relevant today. Every month, the business owners make a long scheduled call to each of their team members to discuss anything but work. While it might feel weird initially, people quickly get used to it and appreciate the opportunity to connect on a different set of topics, without an agenda.
  • Set up a collab session. Sharing one from our own in-house practice now… Once a week we have a window established in everyone’s calendar, when we make sure our calendars coincide. Each week we know that at that time we can reach each other instantly – hop on a call if needed, respond to a text message or check something on our project management software. The complete lack of an agenda means that only rarely do these sessions pass with relatively little interaction. Mostly it’s a flurry of communication as we share personal anecdotes and connect on the work as needed.
  • Have a team huddle. James Henry, CTO at PureWeb sets up completely agenda-less sessions when the team can ‘huddle’: “It’s OK to relax and have a video conference with no business agenda, but for the sole purpose of casual catch-ups and virtual happy hours.” The idea is that by staying connected even when they’re not working, they can facilitate quality communication that makes the team more effective when they are working.
  • Set up an online space to talk about ‘non-work’ topics. Brenda Schmidt, CEO of Coplex, a venture studio, facilitates additional communication in her company by creating Slack channels around employee passions and interests, where people can share ideas, photos, and interesting links. In my experience these really take off in fully remote or distributed teams, but don’t get as much traction in hybrid teams. 

Wherever you are located, and whatever your team’s work style or flexibility arrangement, keep in mind that these days, yes communication and collaboration are key elements of teamwork – but there is another one – connection

And if you are rethinking your workspace design, you will want to ensure that the water cooler features prominently. Technology has not replaced the ease and efficiency of the connection we can do when we get together in person. Not yet.