When you’re in the office, it’s easy to get pulled into informal conversations, either about work or about the weather, last night’s game, or the latest news headlines. This so-called ‘water cooler talk’ plays an important role in helping bring a team together.
It’s harder to manage in a remote team. You don’t bump into each other in a virtual environment, so when video calls or live chat happen, it’s easy to forget the social side of things and just get down to business. Water cooler conversations have many benefits, so it’s worth fostering ways to make them happy with your remote team.
What is Water Cooler Conversation?
Water cooler chat is a blanket term for those casual conversations that happen all the time in an office. Whether it is literally bumping into someone at the water cooler, passing in a corridor or grabbing five minutes while you make coffee, it’s that semi-work conversation where great things happen. It’s about team bonding, sharing ideas, and having informal problem-solving sessions.
Top Benefits of Water Cooler Talk in Remote Teams
1. Building Belonging
A sense of belonging is one of the most fundamental human needs. According to Maslow´s hierarchy of needs, it is above food, water, warmth, and security.
Water cooler chat helps foster that sense of belonging. It gives your team time to talk to each other, get to know each other, and find out what they have in common. This is particularly important for a remote team that is working across geographical boundaries as it helps bring your remote team together.
2. Improving Retention
A positive working environment improves employee retention. Adding water cooler conversation time to your meeting schedule shows your staff that you care about them and their lives outside of the work they do for you. And remember, remote teams are generally more productive than in-office teams, so putting some time aside to chat about the wider world won’t significantly impact output.
3. It Supports Collaboration
Have you ever sat through a meeting that seemed unproductive, only to have the solution come to you or someone else when you’re talking more casually about the situation later? This can happen for various reasons, not least of which is that some people just aren’t comfortable voicing their opinions in meetings. With less pressure then solutions can come to the surface, and that’s the magic of water cooler discussion.
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4. Level Playing Fields
Another thing that a more casual environment brings is less hierarchy. While you may still be the boss, if you’re engaging with your team on a more casual level then it changes the dynamic. This not only allows you to deepen the bond with the team members, but it also gives them an opportunity to approach you with ideas without it seeming like a big deal.
How to Create a Virtual Water Cooler
How you create team water coolers when your people are spread across the country or world takes a little creative thinking. There’s no one ‘right’ solution as how you manage it will depend on your team and what works best for the individuals in it but some options include:
- A scheduled meeting every day at the start or end of the working day. This can either be purely social or a hybrid where it’s a combined chat plus check-in to allow your team to share the things they’re struggling with and see if anyone can help.
- Making time at the start or end of any meeting to ‘shoot the breeze’ and take the discussion to a more casual place.
- Having a #watercooler Slack channel, Teams space or similar where everyone can add to the conversation no matter which time zone they are working in.
- Scheduling coffee breaks, where everyone downs tools for 10-15 minutes and steps into a virtual break room to take a breather and change their mental state
The main thing here is the intention, however you make it happen. It’s about taking a step away from the more formal idea of a meeting and getting people to chat, open up, and share both their personal and work lives with each other.
Tips for Managing Water Cooler Conversations in Remote Teams
There are a few things that you need to keep an eye on, to ensure that your water cooler time works well and supports your remote team to get to know each other better. These include:
- Keep a list of question ideas that can help you to start a conversation if the chat isn’t flowing well
- Don’t let it turn into a gossip session. While you do want to create a sense of belonging in your team, you don’t want to do it at the expense of wider company unity. Don’t let it become a ‘them and us’ situation either between your team, or other departments.
- Try and keep it professional. While you do want people to be able to share things about their lives to get to know each other better, this isn’t a therapy session and boundaries need to be kept in place.
- Don’t compare paychecks or promotion opportunities. That’s a surefire way to open a divide rather than bringing people together.
- Have multiple channels to keep everyone involved. Don’t just leave it to virtual meetings, have a live chat option, and asynchronous options if your teamwork in different time zones.
- Understand that different people want different amounts of social interaction. Introverts in your team will participate less, and making sessions optional will be a big relief to them.
Best Water Cooler Topics
Let’s face it, we’re not all great at small talk and in fact for introverts or neurodiverse people it can be really difficult to know what to bring up in conversation. There are some topics that are best avoided, just as they are in real life; politics and religion are the usual suspects when it comes to hot potatoes.
That doesn’t mean you need to keep it casual, you can discuss the bigger issues of the day as long as it doesn’t make anyone feel left out or upset. Only having an open relationship with your team will give you the insight to know which water cooler discussions are best left untouched.
If you’re the type to struggle with getting conversations started then it can help to set a topic of conversation for each meeting. Here are a few suggestions:
- Where did you grow up?
- What’s the most unusual thing about where you live?
- Playing ‘Never have I ever’
- Recipe sharing
- Favourite movies
- Have you ever met a celebrity?
- Pick any four people from history to invite to a dinner party
- The great debates: Pineapple on pizza, is the dress blue or gold, are there more doors or wheels in the world…
- Best gift you’ve ever been given
- Favourite quote
- Best advice you’ve ever received
- Dream vacation destination
As you can see, the best topics are pretty open-ended and encourage your team to share common experiences. This is what helps bring people together as they understand what they have in common.
Just Avoid the Gossip
The important thing about your water cooler meeting, is that it should bring your team together, but don’t let that happen at the expense of relationships with anyone else. Nip gossip in the bud, and keep the conversation positive; while it is true that teams who bond will see themselves as a unit and people outside it as ‘other’ this can foster negative relationships with the wider company. That’s not what you want.
We hope that this post has given you some inspiration for arranging your own virtual water cooler and using it to help bring your remote team together.