How to Reinvent the Office Watercooler in a Hybrid Workplace

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Over the last year, many of us have discovered the luxuries — and limitations — of working “out of the office.” Most of us have probably embraced no commute, and enjoyed the novelty of puttering around in pajama pants and working from the couch.

But it turns out that there’s more to miss about going into the office than some of us may have thought. Research indicates that when we transition to hybrid work, what we miss most is the relationship-building that happens spontaneously in our workplaces — “watercooler moments.” Studies have shown that learning how to succeed at an organization doesn’t happen in an employee handbook, but instead as a result of those watercooler moments. Walking by a colleague’s desk to say hello, converging in the breakroom to discuss a Netflix show, catching up with a co-worker over lunch; these moments are in fact essential to building camaraderie, morale, and trust in our work lives. Just eight months ago, these exchanges may have seemed like just a tedious and obligatory part of our work lives. But these face-to-face moments — and the relationships we cultivate from them — mean more than we knew.

For some people, watercooler moments can be the most invigorating and rewarding parts of work. They let us form bonds with our colleagues that aren’t merely informed by a shared deadline or job title. They keep us looped into what’s really going on in an organization, and give us a space to vent about how we really felt about the project meeting. They’re the sites of conversations that might inspire a team project. It makes sense then that those of us who’ve transitioned to remote work and lost the figurative watercooler might find it challenging to find those interactions through digital means.

So how do we reinvent watercooler moments with our team no matter the distance? The same way Columbia Sportswear does — by using tools like Workplace from Facebook. They had to think creatively on finding ways to increase team engagement. Richelle Luther, SVP & Chief Human Resources Office, credits Workplace with creating better team participation, better insights from remote team members, and a stronger culture. Luther said, “Workplace helps our employees connect and visually showcases our global teams. We’re breaking down silos, communicating across functions and driving engagement, especially amongst our remote employee populations. It has definitely ignited our spirit of fun.” Not only did their email reduce by up to 38%, but the speed of cross-team work accelerated and knowledge sharing wasn’t stifled.

Even as we ease back to office life, we know we don’t have the benefit of constant face-to-face interactions. But if the goal is to cultivate camaraderie, we can all contribute to digital watercooler moments, regardless of location. Here are a few strategies to keep your break room time alive while we transition to the norm of hybrid workplaces.

Replace the coffee break with a virtual cross-team chat

One member of an entirely remote team told me that every morning before beginning work, her team logs onto Zoom for an all-hands 10 minute meeting. Before plunging into project updates and priorities, her team takes five minutes to chat about anything other than work related tasks. Of course, no one was obliged to share anything personal, but participants found it refreshing to have the floor to share something that didn’t have to do with work. Another executive hosted virtual “coffee time” at 8:30am on Zoom so teams across the division could reconnect using randomly organized “break-out” Zoom rooms. Compass Realty CEO Robert Reffkin hosts weekly live Q&A on Workplace called “Coffee + Tea”. Regularly checking in is a great way to celebrate successes, share challenges, and identify cross-team opportunities across your organization. So long as you’re cognizant of other people’s boundaries, a little check in can go a long way.

Reinvent the cafeteria with 15 minute virtual meals

Virtual lunches have become the new social cafeteria, where employees come together to share 15–30 minute virtual meals. And because informal, ‘water-cooler’ interactions have disappeared, Lastminute has introduced randomised virtual breakfast invites so workers can get to know colleagues, as well as ‘culture bubble’ sessions built into the working day. At a New York-based nonprofit, Karen, an operations manager told me that her team decided to do a 30-minute call once a week. The calls were specifically “NOT about work, but to just talk.” Use a lunch to talk about positive things, and hear how everyone is making use of their experience at home. Team members found the break gave them actual time to “eat a meal” because their usual day was packed with professional video calls where they felt uncomfortable eating or drinking a glass of water.

Make space for vulnerability

Watercooler moments gave us an opportunity to be more open with our colleagues than we would, say, during a formal team meeting. It’s important to continue to make space for candor and vulnerability in the virtual office; the more we do, the easier it is for team members to speak up, ask questions, and embrace the discomfort of uncertainty. It can be challenging to show vulnerability, and depending on a person’s title or company role, that vulnerability is often met and judged differently. Nevertheless, we should speak up across these differences to create a psychologically safe work environment.

While some offices are resuming in-person work, many of us will continue being remote workers for the foreseeable future. With that in mind, companies and organizations should make an effort to create digital watercooler moments in their workspaces using the input of all team members. And when we all eventually return to the office, we’ll know not to take those face-to-face watercooler moments for granted.

Erica Dhawan is a leading expert on 21st century teamwork and communication. She is an award winning keynote speaker and the author of the new book Digital Body Language. Download her free guide to End Digital Burnout. Follow her on Linkedin.