by Chris Dyer
Making the transition from a brick-and-mortar office to a remote or hybrid model isn’t easy.
Success in remote work involves much more than doing the same thing from home. Some processes translate more easily than others. For example, the cloud-based applications you’re already using are remote-friendly. However, as my coauthor Kim Shepherd and I argue in Remote Work: Redesign Processes, Practices and Strategies to Engage a Remote Workforce, traditional in-office social interactions are very different at a distance.
The Importance of Virtual Water Cooler Chat
“Water cooler” may sound like a cliché, but coworkers need casual, unofficial channels for chatting, and informal chat offers your company three benefits:
Gossip can be malicious and hurtful, but most of it is beneficial. In fact, Jennifer Haupt (2015) cites a study demonstrating that workplace gossip can be positive. Dishing the dirt allows people to get things off their chest, instead of holding on to negative feelings. Haupt argues that it also encourages cooperation, relieves stress, fosters self-improvement, and provides a valuable reality check. Stephanie Vozza (2015) makes a similar argument, drawing on several studies. She says that gossip also helps identify issues that need to be addressed.
Idea sharing in informal conversations can be different than participating in an “official” brainstorming meeting. Both can be productive. We typically use the focused mode of thinking in brainstorm sessions, but it also helps to employ the diffused mode. Briefly, focused mode is in-the-zone, concentrated thinking, typically used in dealing with familiar topics. Diffused thinking is more holistic and helpful in dealing with new topics, and often works in the background.
For example, most of us have experienced situations in which the resolution to a problem pops into our heads when we’re in the shower or at the gym. The water cooler conversations don’t have to be about the brainstorm topic. Casually chatting about the latest episode of the current favorite TV show can provide the right distraction to move a problem from focused mode to diffused mode. Will you solve every problem this way? No, but water cooler chats allow for diffused thinking to go on.
Cross-functional communication helps keep your company culture healthy, preventing different teams from becoming siloed. A sales rep and an accountant may never have occasion to interact as a normal part of their jobs and may not really know much about what the other does daily. However, a casual conversation about a creative sales tactic or challenging invoice reconciliation can provide some insight. According to Tanya Hall (2019), CEO of Greenleaf Book Group, the better different teams understand one another, the less you will see cliques and us-vs-them dynamics.
Setting Up the Virtual Water Cooler
Actually, you’re setting up a chat room — no need to worry about splashing every time you change the 5-gallon bottle. You can use just about any collaboration platform that offers a chat feature. At PeopleG2 we use Slack, but there are many available, such as Teams, Asana and Monday. These platforms allow you to create an endless array of rooms, but I recommend you make one specifically called “water cooler.” That helps your team understand that it is informal and open to everyone, but you also might want to communicate that clearly. Most platforms allow people to post emojis, pictures, videos and GIFs, too.
We use the water cooler room for informal conversations, and for kudos, shout-outs and thank-yous. That gives it a very positive vibe. Positivity is very important. In fact, in my book The Power of Company Culture: How Any Business Can Build a Culture that Improves Productivity, Performance and Profits, positivity is one of the seven pillars of culture success. For example, we implemented a recognition mechanism called a green flag. Any accomplishment, assist or success can be acknowledged with a green flag. We even created a green flag icon people can use. A post might say, “A big green flag to Maria for helping solve the client’s issue quickly.”
While it’s important to have a company-wide water cooler chat room, you also can create department or project-specific chats to accompany the “formal” chat rooms. That is, you could have an operations team chat in which people discuss functional topics, like an upcoming customer implementation. But operations team members might also enjoy a water cooler chat of their own to share about their personal lives, let others know when someone is out of the office, and, well, just chat.
Your water cooler channel also can be used for teambuilding and social events or serve as a springboard to other informal chat rooms. Events might include movie nights, during which everyone watches — and chats about — a movie or popular TV show. You can set up celebrations on the water cooler channel, such as asking people to post pictures of their Halloween costumes or ugly holiday sweaters. Virtual happy hours don’t need to involve alcohol, but they are a great way for team members to cut loose outside work hours.
Other informal chats might include one for the cycling enthusiasts or bookworms on the staff. I heard of one company that has a travel club chat room, in which they view videos on YouVisit/tour. There are scores of narrated tours such as “Vietnam, at a Glance,” “New York City by Helicopter,” “Gorgeous Croatia, by Boat,” “West Hollywood: More than just Starlets,” “Yosemite Falls,” and others.
One last point
If you are a leader in the company, you’ll want to make a point of participating and being visible in the water cooler room. If you’re new to chat programs, “being there” just means that, at minimum, people can see your name in the list of room participants. More importantly, join in the fun periodically. Not only will your example encourage others to participate, but it’s also a chance to “humanize” yourself by revealing your informal, casual side.
Dyer, C (2018) The Power of Company Culture: How any business can build a culture that improves productivity, performance and profits. Kogan Page, London.
Dyer, C and Shepherd, K (2021) Remote Work: Redesign processes, practices and strategies to engage a remote workforce. Kogan Page, London.
Hall, T. (2019) How to encourage cross-departmental collaboration with 5 easy steps. Available from: https://www.inc.com/tanya-hall/how-to-encourage-cross-departmental-cohesion-with-5-easy-steps.html [Last accessed December 1, 2021]
Haupt, J (2015) 5 Benefits of gossip (even negative gossip). Psychology Today, 22 June. Available from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/one-true-thing/201506/5-benefits-gossip-even-negative-gossip [Last accessed December 1, 2021]
Vozza, S (2105) Five hidden benefits of gossip. FastCompany.com, 5 March. Available from: https://www.fastcompany.com/3043161/five-hidden-benefits-of-gossip [Last accessed December 1, 2021]
Chris Dyer is the founder and CEO of PeopleG2, where he manages 30 full-time remote employees and 3,000 independent contractors. PeopleG2 is routinely ranked as one of the best places to work and has been listed as one of Inc.’s 5000 Fastest-Growing Companies. Having made the transition to remote during the recession in 2009 with stunning success, Chris Dyer is now a world-renowned expert on remote leadership and productive company culture.