Where is the water cooler?

The water cooler often holds a negative connotation for the workplace, especially when it comes to sexual harassment.  It is the place where gossip is spread, off color jokes are told, and where people are excluded.  

But it is also a place where people gather to chat and connect, creating a group cohesion that makes them more productive throughout the day.  It’s a phenomenon known as the “water cooler effect.” 

In a time where entire companies are working remotely, employees are beginning to ask “where is the water cooler?”  Where do we gather to connect and remember that we are part of a greater whole? In the 2019 State of Remote Work Report, loneliness was listed as one of the leading struggles for employees working remotely.  The average business journal will tell you that one of the solutions to this is to periodically bring remote workers into the office.  But when social distancing is required, bringing people together in person is not a valid solution.

So how do you nurture connection and bolster your company culture when your workforce is dispersed, possibly for the 1st time?

  1. Be proactive in your communication - The brief check-ins you could do with your employees as you’re strolling through the office are no longer possible.  Reach out to them directly with small touchpoints to let them know they are on your mind and that you’re available to them.
  2. Be empathetic in your interactions - Everyone is under stress right now and we are not presenting the best versions of ourselves, even sometimes when we think we are.  Know that a little bit of understanding can go a long way, especially for employees whose work and family life have suddenly become intimately intertwined.
  3. Be purposeful in your structure - Karen Sobel Lojeski spoke of “virtual distance,” which is a sense of emotional and psychological detachment that builds over time when people become overly reliant on technology to mediate relationships.  This is a very real risk for companies working remotely so having purposeful channels for connection is important.
  4. Be encouraging - Find ways to acknowledge employees who are living out your company’s core values even now.  Depending on your environment, this may look like a special write-up in your newsletter, a shoutout in your virtual all-hands meeting, or a carefully selected gif in your #celebration Slack channel.
  5. Be creative in your learning - While some industries have gotten busier during this crisis, others are finding that they have a little more time on their hands than normal.  Utilize your time to connect with your team over a shared TED talk, book, or article. Think about ways you can learn together and open up channels for personal and professional growth, both now and in the days to come.

Even while working remotely, there are numerous ways you can continue to nurture connection and a healthy workplace culture. We will have another blog soon about virtual harassment.

Joell Beagle

Joell Beagle

Joell was a key member of the SAFE Institute training team until 2020, when she transitioned into a new role serving families at Dell Children's Hospital.