There is no question that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we work and communicate. Many of us have shifted to remote or hybrid work models, relying on technology to stay connected and productive. While this has brought many benefits, such as flexibility, autonomy, and cost savings, it has also posed some challenges, such as isolation, disengagement, and collaboration difficulties.

Many remote workers miss the casual and spontaneous conversations that happen in the office, often around the water cooler or the coffee machine. These informal chats may seem trivial or even distracting, but they actually play a vital role in fostering social bonds, enhancing wellbeing, and stimulating creativity. Some leaders believe that taking a few minutes to talk about personal interests is ‘a waste of time’ or a bad behaviour that impacts productivity, but finding a few moments in your day to connect with colleagues enhances employee wellbeing. 

What is ‘water cooler’ talk?

The ‘water cooler’ concept originated at a time when all employees worked together in the same office. Workplaces usually had a water cooler which became a gathering point when employees took mini breaks. ‘Water cooler’ talk was born as workers would linger after refilling their glass to have casual discussions with other employees.

Whilst some people associate ‘water cooler’ talk with gossip, the trusty water cooler has become a key aspect of building workplace culture as it has facilitated the opportunity for casual conversations about family, sport, TV shows and any areas of personal interest. It is now well known as a concept rather than a specific location.

Why your business needs ‘water cooler’ talk

It is tempting for leaders to want to minimise the small talk in an effort to increase productivity, but research suggests that employers should look for opportunities to create more ‘water cooler’ moments. Water cooler chat is not just idle gossip or small talk. It is a form of social interaction that can have positive impacts on both individuals and teams.The following are some key reasons to embrace the water cooler moments:

  • Informal chats lead to higher levels of collaboration

Employees who connect on a social level are more likely to go the extra mile for a teammate and less likely to become a ‘social loafer’. When employees have a personal connection, there is a greater appetite to work together to meet and exceed work challenges.

  • The water cooler works to remove barriers and silos

Impromptu gatherings create opportunities for discussions with workers who would otherwise not normally chat during the day. Locations within the office where workers naturally gather generate conversations that would not normally happen with employees from all levels and departments. This builds collaboration and innovation.

  • A short break can improve productivity

Sure – a two-hour chat is unproductive, but taking a few minutes to have a laugh about last night’s sitcom or a failed attempt at a new recipe can have a wonderful impact on productivity as workers feel more engaged, energised and focused. A short mental break and distraction allows for a recharge and diversion from something that may have been a roadblock.

  • It boosts morale and motivation

Water cooler chats can also provide a source of emotional support and encouragement for employees, especially during stressful or challenging times. By expressing their feelings, venting their frustrations, or celebrating their achievements, employees can feel more valued, appreciated, and understood by their peers.

  • It builds trust and rapport 

Water cooler chat allows employees to get to know each other on a personal level, beyond their professional roles and tasks. By sharing their interests, hobbies, opinions, and experiences, employees can develop trust and rapport, which are essential for effective teamwork and collaboration.

  • It enhances creativity and innovation

Water cooler chats can also spark new ideas and insights, as employees exchange information, perspectives, and feedback. By exposing themselves to diverse and novel conversations, employees can stimulate their curiosity and imagination, and generate more creative and innovative solutions.

How to Recreate Water Cooler Chat in a Remote or Hybrid Workplace

While water cooler chats may seem natural and effortless in a physical office, it can be challenging to replicate in a remote or hybrid workplace, where employees may have limited or no face-to-face interactions. Remote water cooler moments are particularly important for these employees as they don’t have the luxury of building on historic face to face connections. Organisations are realising that when you take away the water cooler moments, employees are becoming more isolated and less collaborative.

However, with some intention and creativity, you can recreate water cooler chat in your remote or hybrid workplace. Here are some tips to help you:

  • Use the right tools 

To facilitate water cooler chat, you need to use the right tools that enable easy and seamless communication. For example, you can use instant messaging apps, such as Microsoft Teams, to create dedicated channels or groups for casual and non-work-related conversations. You can also use video conferencing apps, such as Zoom or Skype, to host virtual coffee breaks, happy hours, or game nights, where employees can see and hear each other in real time. Enable a system where workers can ‘check in’ to meetings early to connect before they get down to business.

  • Set the tone and expectations

To encourage the water cooler chat, you need to set the tone and expectations for your employees. For example, you can model and promote a culture of openness, respect, and fun, where employees feel comfortable and safe to share their thoughts and feelings. You can also provide some guidelines and boundaries, such as when and how to initiate and participate in water cooler chats, and what topics are appropriate and inappropriate to discuss.

  • Make it fun and engaging

To sustain water cooler chat, you need to make it fun and engaging for your employees. For example, you can introduce some icebreakers, games, quizzes, or challenges, to spark interest and excitement. You can also vary the topics, formats, and frequencies of water cooler chat, to cater to different preferences and needs. You can also solicit feedback and suggestions from your employees, to improve and optimise your water cooler chat initiatives.

Consider swapping playlists and using music to start team meetings. Implement the opportunity for employees to access mindfulness or remote fitness sessions that can be done with other co-workers. Lunch time Pilates anyone?

Building a stronger, more unified team

At the core of the employment experience is the need to belong. Employees  who don’t feel that they are part of a community soon start looking for alternative employment.

It is irrelevant whether it is the actual water cooler, the coffee station or the virtual ‘hangout’ – it is about creating opportunities for employees to spontaneously connect in an authentic manner. If your organisation has a hybrid or remote working models, it is integral to look for ways to keep the ‘water cooler’ moment alive as social distancing should never equate to social isolation.

Further information

For assistance with all your workplace matters, Members of Ai Group can contact us or call our Workplace Advice Line on 1300 55 66 77 for further information. Ai Group offers a range of training courses to support employers on their development journey. 

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Georgina Pacor

Georgina is Senior HR Content Editor – Publications at Ai Group. She is an accomplished Human Resource professional with over 25 years of generalist and leadership experience in a broad range of industries including financial services, tourism, travel, government and agriculture. She has successfully advised and partnered with senior leaders to implement people and performance initiatives that align to business strategy. Georgina is committed to utilising her experience to create resources that educate and engage and is passionate about supporting members to optimise an inclusive workforce culture that drives performance.