How to replicate the "water cooler effect" when your team's working from home

29 April 2020

There are a few ways you can try and replicate those serendipitous moments between team members that occur in the office while your team is working remotely.

Constant remote working is a very unusual situation and a difficult one for many to adjust to. The typical ‘how to keep motivated at home’ advice just doesn't seem to cut it, because we aren’t just working from home - we are working from home during a global pandemic. It’s okay to feel slightly less motivated. But it can be helpful to put a few things in place to maintain some sense of normalcy and help your team feel connected and engaged during this difficult time. Try and find ways to replicate those serendipitous moments that occur in the office - meeting in the kitchen, catching up with someone whilst looking through the snack drawer or saying hello as you pass in the corridor.

These serendipitous moments that help your staff to build stronger relationships are often referred to as the ‘water cooler effect’: a chance to chat about personal lives, and make small talk with your teammates. While we’re at home, we don’t have these moments. It means new starters aren’t having the same opportunities to meet others in the business. It means senior managers don’t have the same visibility, which can cause alignment issues. And, it means those whose roles don’t rely on communication can feel left behind, or out of touch with colleagues they’d usually be supported by.

So how do you create the virtual water cooler effect when your team's working from home?

We’ve trialled plenty of things at Goodlord and what we’ve really learned is that these moments do have to have some level of ‘organised fun’ to make them successful. Having a virtual coffee break that’s available all day is only useful if your team is using it. Having a specific time to log in can encourage participation, but even then, conversation can be challenging. It’s very easy to slip into ‘work chat’. It can help to ask those participating to prepare answers to a set of questions. Questions can be anything, but are not work-related. It makes coffee time more about getting to know each other informally and having set questions prepared makes the experience less awkward and ensures every person gets their turn.

Sure, coffee time’s great - but what about for those who aren’t able to tune in at that particular time? Creating a ‘virtual office’ environment on a shared chat tool can help too. At Goodlord, we’ve worked hard to create an ongoing dialogue in our company-wide instant messaging tool. We spark chatter at the start of the day with our daily virtual challenges, which range from ‘draw a house’ to ‘show us your house plant collection’, and we try and ensure that weekly, we add something for everyone.

You don’t have to do grand initiatives to engage your team. Why not add short team building activities into your daily stand-ups or meetings. For example, asking everyone to start the meeting with something they are grateful for or telling the team about their day. There are apps that allow you to create your own quiz, so why not encourage each of your team to do a ‘get to know me’ quiz that you can all have a go at? Failing that, there are plenty of Sporcle quizzes that can work as a great start to any meeting.

The serendipitous moments we have when chatting to a colleague around the office provides us with a casual place to get to know someone at an individual level. Not just their day job, but who they are and what they enjoy doing. The ‘virtual water cooler’ can be created by simply allowing your team the chance to get to know each other. We know our team members are free at different hours of the day and enjoy doing different things. We’ve tried to create something for everyone. From our traditional ‘introlords’ - where a new starter does a presentation to the team about who they are -to our newer ‘pet introlords’ - meeting our colleagues’ furry roommates. There’s been plenty in between too.

Our Office Book Club has provided a space for our team to share thoughts on specific topics, and provide great book recommendations too. It’s amazing what you can learn about a person from their favourite book. Some of our team are a lot more artistic or musical, so we’ve got activities for them too. From our ‘Goodlord Radio’ Spotify playlist, to #AlbumFridays - a list of our favourite albums which you select randomly from on a Friday to listen to. We hope that our upcoming Art Club ‘Crafternoon’ will also allow for guilt-free chat with our team (and maybe some of their children too) whilst we create something artistic.

One thing that has been clear throughout our time in lockdown so far is the importance of routine for everyone. Those on furlough aren’t going to keep track of social events that are cropping up if they aren’t logged in. But if they know that every Friday at 5pm there’s a company-wide huddle, they will be able to remember and tune in for that. We’ve introduced a couple more routine items into our calendars to encourage regular chat too, including a weekly pub quiz every Wednesday, where we sort our employees into random teams so it allows them to meet someone new. We’ve also put in place a ‘CEO social hour’ - a chance, every fortnight, for our furloughed staff to check-in with our CEO and People Team and to find out any general updates.

It’s clear from research and practical application that engagement and ‘the water cooler effect’ can be nourished through clear plans and processes. It starts with a manager putting the time in to attend and promote the initiatives to their team, and a hard working People Team to plan and organise events to keep them regular and exciting.

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