Eons ago, you’d stuff yourself inside a little metal vehicle every morning to arrive at sacred land: the office.
Regardless of whether your office was drab, miniscule, or eclectic, it was a hub of connectivity for coworkers. The water cooler in particular was a vehicle for casual conversation. Or a kombucha on-tap station if your office was one of those companies.
These unofficial meeting spots were where the unplanned conversations would spark. You’d get up front your desk to refill on some lavender-lime kombucha, and before you know it you’re talking to Mark about their unnecessarily detailed weekend.
Sure, some conversations were trite. Yet, the water cooler remained a lax environment where coworkers could chat and let their creativity flow. It was on these grounds that tiny serendipitous events could take place and change everything.
But with the physical offices now obsolete, how do you recreate these watering holes online?
Dedicate a Slack channel to it? Force a Zoom “water cooler convo” happy hour?
Should your company even bother trying to recreate it?
Yes. Here’s why.
What is The Water Cooler Effect and Water Cooler Talk?
Back in the old days most offices had bottleless water cooler service. It served as an unofficial meeting ground which signified, “I am taking a b-r-e-a-k. Distract me.”
In today’s world (since most offices replaced water coolers with bottled Dasani) this is any central gathering place. Think receptionist desk, break room, or the watered-down Keurig.
While taking pauses in between projects, peers would gather around the water cooler and socialize. These “water cooler conversations” widely ranged from weather reports to the latest Bachelorette episode.
The “water cooler effect” is when these seemingly informal conversations would foster social bonds, drive innovation, and strengthen company culture. Who knew The Bachelorette gossip could lead to such revelations?
How Chit-Chatting on Company Time Is A Solid ROI
Water cooler talk has an unfavorable reputation. It’s seen as an excuse to gossip while company time ticks away. We can’t blame its reputation - could you imagine swearing to your boss that Bachelorette gossip boosts productivity?
However, having regular water cooler conversations is a company’s best asset. As employees take a mental break and rejuvenate, they build team rapport and social cohesion with their coworkers.
The water cooler acts as a place where people can connect to others on a personal level. Feeling interconnected to coworkers in consequence strengthens company culture.
Research by Alex Petland’s MIT team revealed that it increases employee productivity by 10%-15%. This has to do with the Kohler effect, a phenomenon that occurs when a person works harder when part of a group versus acting alone. Water coolers are effective in making individuals feel bridged to their teammates.
Serendipity Lies Within Water Cooler Topics
Water cooler topics revolve around tacit knowledge, shared attitudes, and work ethic. This allows for productivity to soar. Yet these informal conversation topics additionally allow employees to drop their guard. As the conversation flows freely, so does unprompted creativity.
Creativity bursts through the doors when there’s no pressure for it to show up. It enters the conversation inconspicuously, and suddenly the discourse becomes wacky, unfiltered, and leads to new ideas. In short: that’s when the magic happens.
Yet creativity is frustratingly elusive. You can’t sit yourself down and say, “creativity, come out right now so I can come up with amazing new ideas!” It’s like yelling at a bird. It has no idea what you’re talking about and all you’re doing is scaring it away.
When you create a Zoom “water cooler” hour or Slack channel, you’re shouting nonsense to that bird.
The problem remains: how do you create an environment that facilitates unfiltered, spontaneous conversation within remote work?
Solution: Create a (Virtual) Water Cooler Inside a Virtual HQ
You can’t create serendipity. But, you can create its environment.
The environment for these unfiltered, spontaneous conversations have to be casual just like the water cooler. It’s a place to “hang out” and sits in the background, reachable at any moment.
Why Modern Remote Work Tools Can’t Replicate The Water Cooler Effect
The problem is that modern remote work software such as Zoom feels intentional. Zoom can also be exhausting, so prompting a coworker to schedule a chat when they’re already burnt out feels burdensome.
Creating a dedicated Slack channel is another option. Yet, it takes away from the spontaneity of the water cooler conversations. It also poses logistical challenges. Employees could turn on Slack notifications for this channel so they can see whenever coworkers are chatting about something they might wanna jump in on. Yet, the influx of Slack notifications would be undeniably distracting. Not to mention the Slack notification sound haunts most people already.
These types of platforms are serving specific actions required in the workplace, yet aren’t the workplace themselves. For example, if people end up going to the office IRL tomorrow, they’d most likely still use Slack.
Make Remote Work Spontaneous Again
To make remote work feel spontaneous, you have to recreate the office metaverse. Branch is a startup dedicated to providing these virtual HQs to distributed teams.
Within virtual HQs, water cooler talk is able to strike like old pre-covid times. Not only does Branch have an actual virtual mini water cooler, but it runs discreetly in the background. This means team members are logged on all day yet avoid the dreaded “always on” presentation caused by Zoom fatigue.
With coworkers buzzing along their remote workday, they’re able to signify they’re ready to take a breather. Their avatar can chill by the water cooler or sit at the pixelated lunch tables.
Branch uses spatial audio which acts as an additional vehicle for serendipity. If an employee was at their “desk”, they could hear coworkers approaching and walking away. Suddenly, it’s possible to run into coworkers again.
Branch’s virtual office cultivates serendipity because it’s an environment that isn't forced, just like the watering holes of the office.
If you’d like to sign up for branch, you can do so here and join the other businesses ready to prime their workspace for old-fashioned water cooler chance encounters.