The benefits of creating a virtual water cooler


With HR leaders drawing up plans for a gradual return to work, HR Grapevine asks whether this should be factored into new office designs...

The office water cooler has always been a hub of conversation. A place for employees to dissect news headlines, discuss weekend plans and conduct impromptu meetings all the while filling up their water bottles. According to Career Buzz, ‘water cooler talk’ is a term used to describe casual chit-chat between co-workers, typically about non-work-related topics. The site explained that this concept derived from a time when all staff worked in the same office and, invariably, a physical water cooler fixture acted as a central meeting point – though nowadays, this applies to the broader concept of casual conversation that isn’t confined to a physical water cooler.

To some, this casual conversation might seem trivial, though Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at the Manchester Business School argues that it is crucial for employee wellbeing because of its “social connectedness”. This, he explains to HR Grapevine, is where employees learn about one another and invest in relationships with colleagues – which is crucial given that workplaces rely on teamwork to thrive.

Of course, even before the pandemic hit the UK, some employees did have the option of homeworking, though Cooper explains that a main reason why employees go into work is because they want their “social needs to be met”. He reels off a few examples of what this can look like such as: bouncing ideas around; talking about football; dissecting recent news; chatting about bosses and relationships at home (whether good or bad). “All of those things are part of the human condition because we are social animals, so not being in an office environment will have a negative mental health effect if we worked exclusively remotely,” he explains.

Should employers create virtual water coolers?

Recent Vodafone research quizzed employees about the things that they are missing most about the office during this period of homeworking. The data unearthed that employees miss being around colleagues (40%) and bouncing ideas off one another (30%), with eight per cent stating that they miss watercooler gossip. Some employers may have tried to replicate a ‘virtual water cooler’ yet Cooper doesn’t believe this will work. “Talk to anybody now and they say that it is great to see people but [they’re] not sharing what [they] really feel about things,” he explains.

Throughout the pandemic, employers have used Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other social platforms to keep staff connected during this time, though Cooper says that in these calls - where 20 people could be present - individuals don’t get the same level of exposure and will be less prepared to talk personally in front of those that they don’t know. With that in mind, if employers and line managers did want to encourage this kind of conversation between remote staff, Cooper suggests that virtual 1-2-1’s are better because staff will be able to open up.

5 reasons to encourage water cooler chat

  • It builds company culture
  • It leads to improved collaboration
  • It prompts great ideas and solutions
  • It brings employees together
  • It promotes healthier employees

Should watercoolers be designed into ‘COVID-secure’ offices?

With HR professionals drawing up plans for a safe return to work – in alignment with the UK Government’s ‘COVID-secure’ guidelines – it is possible that meeting by the water cooler to chat to colleagues won’t be allowed for some time due to social distancing measures. With that in mind, Cooper suggests that organisations factor this into office designs and create a place where staff can safely – with adhering to Government guidance – meet for a cup of coffee to have a conversation.

“[Employers] have to design that in. They can’t just say ‘we’re going to sit apart and then have no place to go to meet up’. [Employers] have to organise it so that there is a place where staff can go but with keeping [to] physical distancing,” he adds. To make staff feel comfortable when they do eventually return to the office, Cooper suggests that HR departments should circulate a video of what the office will look like before they are expected to return. While a large portion of staff members will opt for more flexible working arrangements going forwards, Cooper explains that employees will still want to visit the central office to get their “social connectedness” fix.


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