Reinventing the water cooler – and why it matters

By Kate Lee

The “water cooler effect” helps create and foster social bonds, drive innovation, align on truths, and even helps the bottom line.

As humans, our need for social connection is innate. Research by Matthew Lieberman, Professor and Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab Director at UCLA Department of Psychology, Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, finds that our need to connect is as fundamental as our need for food and water and that when our social bonds are threatened or severed we suffer greatly. Lieberman: “We may not like the fact that we are wired such that our well-being depends on our connections with others, but the facts are the facts.”

With 42% of Americans working from home and social distancing directives in effect, social bonds are being challenged. At the same time, we need these social bonds now more than ever. People are facing increased demands on their time as they try to juggle work, family, and the increased stress, anxiety, and pressures stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Further, people are struggling with isolation and feelings of grief.

While water cooler chats, hallway conversations, and the informal “do you have a minute,” tend to get a bad rap, these informal conversations are critical to creating and fostering social bonds, driving innovation, aligning on truths, and even helping the bottom line.

Research by Alex “Sandy” Pentland, Professor and Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program Director, conducted a series of studies on workplace socializing. The studies found that cohesion (defined as how connected your work friends are with each other) among employees is one of the most significant factors in productivity and job satisfaction. Pentland says we should take the following from this research:

“First of all, it underscores that we are all social animals and that our connection with others at a local level – our tribe – is vitally important. Second, with increased cohesion likely comes an increase in things such as shared tacit knowledge, shared attitudes and work habits, and social support. This happens through office chat about how to manage specific situations, people, and problems, sharing tips, talking about life-work balance, and so forth. In other words, much of the important information about how to be successful and productive at a job is not going to be found in a memo or an employee handbook, but rather around the water cooler.”

Not only does the “water cooler effect,” as Pentland calls it, increase employee productivity by 10-15% and increase job satisfaction, it also boosts executive functioning, and establishes trust.

With people working at home, hallway chats and water cooler conversations are no longer happening. Given the importance of these informal conversations and our need for social connection, how can we reinvent the water cooler?

Include time for informal check-ins and conversation at the start of meetings, schedule regular meetings with your team, and regular one-on-ones. Listen and ask questions. People are scared, anxious, and uncertain about what’s next. They are trying to balance work and family. They are trying to take care of sick family members and take care of children at home. None of this can be swept under the rug. Talking about these issues, addressing these issues, and respecting them – this is critical.

A simple way to enable informal conversation is to encourage employees to create channels in Slack (or other collaboration software) dedicated to shared interests. These channels can be as diverse as people’s interests – parenting, gardening, running, dogs, or cooking. These channels allow people to connect and engage with people of similar interests, share ideas, and have some fun.

Another simple solution is to encourage spontaneous phone calls and the use of chat. These spur of the moment and quick connections are often much-needed interruptions.

Leaders can model this by picking up the phone or sending a chat and asking, “Do you have a minute?”

Lunch is another opportunity. With more time being spent in meetings and with the workday longer than before the pandemic, lunch is often forgotten or eaten hastily. Encourage people to have virtual one-on-one lunches with colleagues and invite people to host virtual lunches. These lunches can be topic-specific, or they can just be an agenda-free time for people to connect.

Another option is to create a virtual water cooler via Zoom. For example, have a recurring agenda-free meeting between 4:00 and 5:00 that is open to everyone. People can pop in and out as they would like.

Book groups and games are another way to bring people together and spur connection and informal conversations. Encourage people to set up a book group or weekly trivia competition, for example.

As we rethink the water cooler, it is essential not to put too much structure in place. PowerPoint presentations, required happy hours, and compulsory Zoom events outside of work hours will create stress, anxiety, and additional work – the antithesis of the water cooler and what is needed.






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