Published August 11th, 2017 by

The 3 Do’s of Virtual Water Coolers

So you have a problem: your company culture is suffering because, in your view, your employees aren’t “friends” and don’t converse much at work, either in person or online. Yet, on the flip side, you have a few tactless jokers who love distracting GIF wars in chain emails.

You know casual communication is good: it builds culture, leads to employees feeling more fulfilled at work, builds trust and respect which lead to collaboration, and it brings remote employees together and connects employees in different offices. But right now the conversations that do happen are splintered throughout Facebook messenger or Google Hangouts or Slack and just happen within cliques and small groups. Or they’re distracting email chains…

How can you encourage your employees to interact with each other in more effective ways and/or shoot the breeze?

Obviously forcing casual conversation defeats the purpose. More company events and things that get people off their chairs and interacting in-person with each other would help. But you need something that’s smaller and more frequent–something that affects the digital conversations between your employees.

You need to do more to unite the company, keep people off Facebook but keep important channels like email clear, and keep distractions such as email GIF wars to a minimum.

You need a virtual water cooler.

Of course a real water cooler is best where possible. But in this digital world, you need to meet your employees on their terms: on their computers. And, realistically in today’s work landscape with employees scattered across the world, a real water cooler may not be feasible anyways.

A multitude of social and digital tools exist to enable you to integrate a virtual water cooler into your company’s day-to-day. I’m not going to list out “the top 10 best social tools for company conversations,” but rather give you three things to keep in mind as you go about choosing a platform and figuring out how to implement it into your company’s daily life.

3 Do’s of Creating Virtual Water Coolers

Here are three things you should do to ensure the success of your virtual water cooler:

1. Use the same platform for business communications and water cooler-ing

Your office probably already has numerous methods of communication including email, project management tools, instant messaging, and a more-convenient-than-email platform for more convenient company-related messages, as well as traditional texting and Whatsapp.

Adding another platform just for water cooler conversations is a surefire way to have it fail. Rather, you need to integrate water cooler conversations into your already-existing communications platform or migrate to a new social platform that can accommodate all of your company communications.

People won’t open a new browser tab or app just to shoot the breeze on “company-approved” turf. Casual conversations at a new water cooler will likely be a bit forced in the beginning anyways, so you need to remove as many barriers as possible to encourage everyone to use it. Otherwise they’ll just stick with their preferred IM platform and then your effort is wasted.

As a side note, people will always use Facebook et al. to some extent. But your goal is to capture as much of the conversation as possible in one platform in order to encourage interaction with people from all over the company.

Slack, Yammer, and other work-minded social networks have the ability to create various groups for different conversations. Even project management platforms like Basecamp have this functionality. So you can have official company announcements, departmental communications, and water-cooler-type conversations all within the same platform.

Another benefit of creating a water cooler within your regular business communication platform, rather than having them separate, is that both sides (water cooler and business) are utilized more and the conversations are more robust across departments and disciplines. A one-stop-shop is more convenient and therefore more effective.

Needing to house your water cooler conversations within the same platform as everything else may require you to move to a new platform better-suited for business and casual. This certainly isn’t an exciting prospect, but is worth the pain and investment.

2. Encourage conversations by avoiding rules

Nothing kills casual conversations quicker than having “big brother” quash the fun with rules and strict oversight.

Of course employees need to respect and avoid all of the HR-protected topics such as religion and politics. You (or your HR rep) may have to step in or intervene from time to time. Obviously you need to do what’s best and legal. But otherwise let your employees talk naturally and freely as they would in the break room.

As an example (of what not to do), I was part of a small team that was scattered across the US and Europe. Some of us had never even met in person. The main communications all happened through email but we used group texting to chat and build rapport, as well as communicate more urgent, time sensitive information. Group messaging was difficult because MMS capabilities are weird across different phones and operating systems so someone instituted a group messaging app.

On the first day we started using the app, some of the team were messing around and the boss dove right in and shut it down in an effort to preserve the platform for serious, work-related information. And this in spite of the fact that we had another, more effective work-related channel. We were then left once again without a viable water cooler. Those of us who were already friends of course continued to communicate via Snapchat, etc. But I never ended up actually talking to some of the team my entire time at the company simply because we didn’t have an easy channel for rapport-building communication.

Laundry lists of approved and unapproved topics will just drive people away. Stepping in and reminding people to focus on work will also drive people away. Some awkward conversations might happen. Some weird GIFs might get shared. Some people might seem too distracted. But that’s an office. Plus, people need to get used to a virtual water cooler.

Plenty of studies show the benefits of casual, non-work-related conversation. So it’s worthwhile to be patient as you introduce a new concept in an old workplace.

3. Have designated contributors

In order to teach by example and warm people up to the idea of starting and participating in conversations, have a few people whose job partially involves using the social platform. For example, have someone in marketing capture the various birthday celebrations and office shenanigans and share photos. Have someone in HR hype the upcoming events outside the formal announcements. This will break the ice, show people the benefits of contributing, and also help mitigate the effects of those few who will overshare.

You’re bound to have people who will overshare, however well-intentioned they may be. Every office has the GIF champions and the socially awkward. Remember, some of the people who make you cringe on Facebook work for you. And if you’re not careful, they’ll drive people away from your water cooler.

So make sure a few people are purposefully sharing meaning things and you can counter the effects of those who would otherwise dominate the conversation. Eventually, participation will snowball and your culture will benefit greatly from the open, internal dialogue.

As a side-note while we’re discussing who should consciously contribute, you, as the business owner need to engage in conversation as well. Employees are much more likely to engage if they see this as company-wide. If you just push it to your employees and upper management doesn’t participate, it will just feel like a ploy to keep employees of Facebook. Don’t try to be cool or force casual conversation, but “like” stuff from time to time and participate as appropriate.

Key Takeaways

Done right, a virtual water cooler will increase the trust, collaboration, and morale of your employees. The culture will strengthen as people gather around the common cause of your business. And the annoying email chains will decrease.

And people much smarter than me agree with the positive effects of encouraging water cooler conversations. Alex Pentland said, ‘The implication [of the positive effect of water-cooler-type conversations] is that a business has a “collective intelligence” that is not the sum of individual IQs but of the structure of its internal social networks.’

You can build the collective intelligence of your company by really putting effort into helping improve your employees’ casual relationships. If you’re a big company, this will absolutely take time. Culture and habits do not change over night. It may not look or feel like you’re succeeding in the beginning, but be patient and persistent and get the right people on board. You can make the necessary changes. And if you’re a small business, get on this now. Focus on internal conversations now so it’s part of your culture as you grow.

Create a space that people want to use with as few barriers as possible and encourage participation. It will be a win for everyone all the way around.

Caz Bevan

VP of Product Operations & Marketing at Creatives Scale
Caz is the VP of Product Operations & Marketing at Creatives Scale for freelance marketers and Co-Founder of Anhelaré startup advisory. Caz has extensive experience blending business goals and marketing tactics into comprehensive company strategies. Her creative innovation and expertise has helped shape customer experiences and drive continual engagement for a variety of companies and products including Sony Music Entertainment and SpeedTV. Connect with Caz: @CazBevan | Linkedin

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