Jan 12, 2023

Water Cooler Talk: Is the “water cooler” important anymore?


How to facilitate small, water-cooler interactions in a hybrid workplace.

The water cooler isn’t – at least in most cases – an actual physical point in the office anymore. But the term harkens back to when it was an integral part of the work day, a place workers gathered to talk about the football game, breaking news, or the latest office gossip. Today, the water cooler has become synonymous with the serendipitous encounters that remain part of the office experience even though they can happen anywhere.

However, as companies go fully remote or adopt hybrid models, these moments are fewer and far between. Does that matter? Is the metaphorical water cooler important today? Or was it never important to begin with?

A metaphor for deeper connections.

We learned in our Living Lab research, that the metaphor as a water cooler doesn’t adequately convey is that instead of serving as a stationary physical place, the water cooler represents the ongoing flow of ideas and collaboration within an organization.

In 2021, Microsoft studied the effects impact remote work was having on its employees. To make sure the data was indicative of the larger picture, Microsoft collected data from workers who went remote due to the pandemic as well as those who had been working remotely for years.

What the research uncovered was that the collaboration became much more siloed among remote workers. Being physically apart made it harder for employees to acquire and share new information across the organizations. It appears, at least according to the research, that in traditional workplaces, unplanned casual interactions play a significant role in shaping cultural connections and facilitating collaborations across an organization – especially among teams, verticals, and functions.

Looking at the bigger picture.

But this doesn’t mean we should all abandon remote work, put our commuting shoes on, and rush back to the office. Water cooler “moments” are just that and they’re often trivial.

What merits discussion and planning for companies is how spontaneity and connection function as guiding principles within their respective organizations. In other words, deciding how to foster connections, whether you work in person or in a hybrid or fully remote model.

Plan for the unplanned.

Rushing back to the office just to create moments of connection isn’t the answer. Neither is relying solely on virtual tools that have been shown to burn workers out. Instead, organizations need to intentionally foster informal and unplanned interactions across individuals, teams, and departments.

But how do we facilitate natural human connection and collaboration in a virtual environment where people aren’t face to face? It’s harder, but it’s doable. Here are a few ideas to help:

What’s your company’s water cooler?

While the water cooler may no longer be a physical place, its importance remains. Because unplanned moments of connectivity where people can shoot the breeze, talk about their non-work lives, and share new, often random ideas is where true organization-wide collaboration begins.

Building these unplanned moments takes a concerted effort. However, if companies are willing to prioritize them, they’ll see incredible results.

For more insights from our Living Lab, follow One Workplace on LinkedIn and see the research overview here.