March 15th 2023
By: André Durivage

The Water Cooler… Even Digital!

You may be surprised that an article about water cooler talk is a topic that has made it to our blogs. And yet… More and more serious articles are being written on this topic.

Water cooler talk is what happens when co-workers take a break and take time to relax and talk about less stressful things like hobbies, vacations, or any other fun topic that is not directly related to work. A waste of time you may ask? Some managers think so. However, in 97% of cases, limiting these types of discussions does not create a more productive or engaged workforce. In fact, a rigid approach can have a negative impact on morale and work quality. People need to share and there are many benefits to informal discussions. Here are some of the benefits.

1. They strengthen the bonds between employees.

By discussing things, people learn to appreciate and trust each other, an ingredient that promotes collaboration at work.

2. They reduce stress.

People need to chat and laugh to de-stress. By working in a good state of mind, employees are happier and more productive.

3. They reinforce the company culture.

Nowadays, the culture of an organization plays an important role in the efficiency and retention of employees. In many cases, a positive culture will be a more important motivating factor than salary or working conditions. A culture that encourages interaction creates commitment. Employees feel supported, appreciated and empowered.

4. They allow an exchange between employees and management.

All people, regardless of their hierarchical level, are equal in front of the coffee machine. Managers who interact informally with their employees are perceived as being more approachable and friendly. These qualities will foster communication and encourage employees to have open discussions with their managers, both informally and at the work level.

5. They help keep employees healthy.

Indeed, reducing stress has a positive impact on health. This reduces absences due to health problems, including mental health problems which are becoming an increasingly important issue in our modern world.

6. They facilitate creativity.

When employees are working non-stop on a project, they sometimes don’t have the perspective to come up with creative solutions. By breaking the pace of work and discussing things, the brain keeps working and making associations in the background. It is often in these circumstances that we come back to the table with an idea, sometimes brilliant, to speed up processes or innovate with new products or services.

7. They facilitate inter-departmental collaboration.

When the water cooler is centrally located, it brings together employees from different departments. It is not uncommon for this type of meeting to unravel administrative processes that would otherwise take much longer. In addition, by creating interpersonal links around the water cooler, it becomes easier to do business with people who are not in our immediate work environment.

There is much to be gained by creating an environment where water cooler discussions are part of the employee engagement and communication strategy. However, in order for this to be a positive exercise, it is important to follow certain rules. And it is your role as a manager to communicate these guidelines to employees and ensure that they are followed.

Unwritten Rules

One thing to consider is that, whenever possible, it is best to place the water cooler in a location that is set back from the work areas. This way, employees whose desks are near the water cooler do not have to listen in and take part in every conversation. It is also important to emphasize the importance of discussing a variety of non-work-related topics (sports, hobbies, interests, etc.). Informal rules such as “we put a dollar in the petty cash fund every time we talk about work” (with the money going to the employee social club or to a good cause) are a fun way to enforce this rule.

Even if you’re not a whiz at small talk, you can facilitate the conversation by asking people questions. To avoid being caught off guard, you can prepare a few questions ahead of time. For example, a quick scan of the news (sports, arts, culture, automotive, etc.) will usually identify a few questions of current interest that will get the discussion going. If you already know your employees’ interests, even better. You can then identify topics that will quickly interest them. Note here that unless you know the employees very well on a personal level, you should avoid asking questions that might seem intrusive. Ideally, the conversation should be kept light and unobtrusive.

As a manager, you must also minimize the risks associated with water cooler discussions. After all, not everything is rosy. Gossip and false rumours often originate in informal discussions. In addition, when employees are tired or under a lot of stress, they may make hurtful comments or offer negative opinions about a person or group of people. You must insist that respect be the basis of all interactions. Do not tolerate negative comments that create a toxic work environment. When this happens, meet with the responsible employee(s) individually, explain the situation and insist that they apologize and avoid repeating these types of comments.

Finally, avoid sensitive topics such as politics, religion or polarizing issues (e.g. armed conflict). Also avoid discussing salaries, promotions, budgets or any other topic that affects one or more people directly. If you have received a promotion, wait for your supervisor to make a formal announcement. These topics, even when approached in a sensitive manner, often end up creating unnecessary tension.

The Digital Water Cooler

Of course, in the digital and telecommuting age, it’s hard to replicate the spontaneity found in discussions around the water cooler. But know that you’re not without and that there are ways to recreate its beneficial effects, even virtually. Here are some examples:

  1. Set up a virtual social network in your organization (ex: Yammer, Happeo, etc.): These social networks allow employees to exchange virtually about any topic that is not directly related to work. Celebrate employees’ birthdays, post pictures of company social events and let employees share freely (respecting the basic rules mentioned above).
  2. Organize online games: Many companies regularly organize games that allow employees to interact in an informal setting (e.g. a quiz that must be answered as a team, online). These activities allow for spontaneous exchanges in a fun environment.
  3. Organize internal clubs: Encourage the creation and maintenance of internal clubs. These can be book clubs, movie clubs, art clubs, etc. Regular meetings allow employees to discuss a book, a movie, a piece of art, etc. Sports pools are also a way to generate interactions that bring employees together.
  4. Schedule a time for employees to talk informally: For example, once a week, start a meeting a little earlier or reserve the first few minutes of the discussion for informal exchanges. Informal lunches or Happy Hours are other practices that are commonly used by companies.
  5. Have contests: For example, organize craft, cooking or gardening contests. Even from a distance, participants can take pictures or make videos to share with others. In this case, it’s not so much the achievements that count, but rather the opportunity to informally exchange on topics that interest us.

Regardless of the medium, water cooler discussions are a management tool that can bring many benefits to employees and the organization in general. When properly managed, these discussions will help create a positive work environment and improve employee productivity.

André Durivage, Ph.D.

Co-President at EPSI and professor at UQO