You Know What’s Missing? Watercooler Talk

The pandemic forever altered the world of work. Companies who successfully made the transition to remote work are re-evaluating the need to bring employees back into the workplace. Whether for health concerns, to meet the demands of employees, or to reduce costs, remote work is here to stay.

A survey of 278 executives by McKinsey & Company in August 2020 found that on average, companies planned to reduce office space by 30 percent. Shifting to flexible workspaces and bringing fewer workers into the offices each day will allow companies to reduce overhead costs. But at what expense?

Researcher Cristina Banks directs the Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces, a global research center at Berkeley, and is a lecturer at the Haas School of Business. Banks weighed in on the impact COVID has had on the workplace in a recent interview with Berkeley News.

Berkeley News: What are the biggest lessons of our experience in the pandemic so far, specifically at work? Or maybe it’s better to ask, what are the biggest losses?

Cristina Banks: “I don’t think we understood collectively how important being in the presence of others has been for our own energy, our own motivation, our own sense of connection and joy.

Using Zoom is exhausting. Just because you could see somebody visually doesn’t mean you connect.

What we need for connection is eye contact. Right now I’m looking at your face on my screen, not at the camera where I could be looking at your eyes. I don’t know where to look to establish eye contact. So, there is no closeness between us. That’s been lost.

Also, we’ve lost spontaneous interaction, and that has a serious business impact. That’s where creativity and innovation spring forth. It’s never planned. You may have an R&D group, but they don’t sit down and say, “OK, we’re going to be creative today,” or “We’re going to be innovative today, and by 5 o’clock, we’ll get a new product envisioned.”

Inspiration comes to you when you’re least thinking about it, when you’re doing something else or you’re looking out your window. But it comes to you because somebody has said something, or you’ve met somebody who had a different point of view, or there has been something that you’ve seen that triggers something new.

Now, though, we don’t have water cooler talk anymore.”

You might ask, what is “water cooler talk”? It’s the daily activity where staff members gather - typically around a water cooler, coffee pot, or in the break room - and have casual conversations with each other. This type of interaction provides the opportunity for people to come together and for team members to connect. It also offers a chance for members of different departments to get to know one another. These “water cooler” conversations enhance company culture and have been shown to boost employee morale. What’s the chatter about? It can be anything from what you did over the weekend, sharing what’s going on in your workday, or asking for input on a problem you are trying to solve.

Author Emily Banks states, “The informal nature of the conversation encourages employees to drop their fears. These brainstorming sessions allow employees to test out ideas before formally presenting to management. Colleagues can also assist in refining the ideas and adding their own suggestions. Ideas spurred by water cooler conversations can influence new ideas, products, and services.”

With the high number of individuals working remotely it’s important for companies to reflect on the value of the water cooler conversation and find new ways to encourage casual interactions among employees. As we know, employee engagement and collaboration is essential to the health and growth of any company.

How do you create space for water cooler conversations among remote workers? In my opinion, nothing can beat face-to-face chats, team building or collaborative opportunities. However, if your company is shifting to remote work, there are ways to replicate these opportunities online. Here are some ideas to provide opportunities for your team to get to know one another and connect about work and non-work-related things.

  • Schedule “coffee chat” sessions with 3-4 employees from different departments to give them a chance to get to know one another. The conversation can be unstructured; or each member can be given a list of sample topics to start the conversation – from the more casual to more work-oriented.
    • Tell us about yourself. Who are you sharing your workspace with? Pets? Family members?
    • What was the highlight of your last week? What did you do over the weekend?
    • What is the most interesting thing about you? Would it surprise people? 
    • What is your favorite place in the world?
    • If you could do anything right now, what would you want to do?
    • What is the most important quality for a person to have? Why?
    • What is one thing that you wish everyone would do more often?
    • What is one thing you would like everyone to know about you?
    • What is your role in the organization?
    • What is your department working on these days?
    • In your opinion, what are the benefits and drawbacks of remote work?
    • What is your best productivity hack?
    • Can you suggest different ways to unify remote workers?
  • Make sure you have a stellar chat app available. Our clients use Teams, Skype, or Slack, all of which allow team members to “chat” with each other throughout the day. Written communication skills are key, as non-verbal cues are missing in this type of application. It’s easy for a message to be misunderstood, or for the reader to simply glance, and not read deeply into the message. Now is a great time to enroll in an Interpersonal Communication or Business Communications course to learn more about effective business communication.  
  • Here’s a fun idea! Send team members a Door Dash or Uber Eats gift card and select a day to have “lunch” together virtually. Seeing who ordered what from which restaurant is a GREAT conversation starter!
  • Schedule virtual team building sessions. These can be individualized by department, or multiple departments can be given a problem to solve. Solutions can be shared in a larger virtual conversation among teams.
  • Get face-to-face whenever possible. If your company allows small group gatherings, reserve a conference room and meet there occasionally. And, while it’s important to not let your day be consumed by Zoom, sometimes you just need to “see” one another to hash out an idea or get an answer to a question. Just make sure to keep these virtual conversations on topic and as brief as possible.

Brie Reynolds, director of online content for, a resource for companies with distributed teams, shared some additional ideas to create gatherings among remote employees. “Our HR director organizers regular intra-team coffee talks where random members of teams that don't normally interact get together for some fun, casual chit chat,” says Reynolds. “We also do trivia nights once a month, host brown bag discussions on lots of random topics, and have ‘groups’ on our message board for pet lovers, book lovers, travel lovers, cooking lovers, etc.”

As a leader, when you create a sense of community within your company culture, employees feel more comfortable reaching out for assistance and are more likely to share their expertise and knowledge with co-workers as well.

While the water cooler offers a natural meeting spot; creating these more virtual opportunities for employee conversation may take some creative thinking, but it can be done! Engaged employees are highly motivated and more productive. Take steps today to build opportunities for your remote or hybrid teams to experience the benefits of “watercooler” talk!


By Kris Powers | July 23rd 2021

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