How to Replicate Watercooler Conversations in the Age of COVID

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In a typical workday, it’s almost certain that employees aren’t engaged in their specific job duties for a full 8 hours. Instead, employees frequently spend time tending to biological needs; scanning the Internet; and, of course, chatting with coworkers. Often, this chatting occurs around a literal or metaphorical watercooler—hence the term “watercooler conversations.”

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While some employers may begrudge the lost productivity because of interoffice fraternization, it’s generally widely acknowledged that this viewpoint is shortsighted and ignores the value of informal office communication.

“Lots of research documents the importance of the informal conversations that take place around the office photocopier, coffee machine or water cooler,” writes Paul Levy in an article for BBC. “These in-between spaces that can result in awkward conversation with someone you don’t know very well play an important role in building community between colleagues, which fosters commitment to a company.”

Unfortunately, relatively few employees are in the office together these days, thanks to the global coronavirus pandemic. But that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no way to replicate the same informal communications that occur there. Companies have been trying for years to replicate the value of these meetings virtually. After all, while COVID-19 may have necessitated the dramatic spread of remote work, it certainly didn’t create it.

“The online water coolers and corridors can be found in sidebar conversations in the one-on-one chats in Zoom meetings. You’ll find people creating informal WhatsApp groups for out-of-earshot commenting, alongside the more formal channels of online conferences,” writes Levy. “Smaller businesses in the tech space who work primarily online set up virtual water coolers years ago. They take the form of virtual meetings rooms that are left open indefinitely. Anyone can go in at any time and meet up with anyone. And the best ones are truly private, encrypted and out of the snooping range of over-interested managers.”

Whether a company’s foray into widespread remote work is expected to be temporary or will take on permanence, companies should constantly be looking for in-office keys to success that aren’t automatically translated to the virtual office and find ways to replicate them. The casual, fluid conversations that happen in areas like the watercooler are a great example.

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