Insight Human resources Remote work

How to foster water cooler moments in a hybrid working environment

Written by Charlotte Brown on 05 Jul 2022

So, the dust has settled and your workforce has emerged as hybrid? According to global knowledge solutions company, Intuition, your organization joins 63% of high-growth businesses now using a hybrid work model. And, it looks like the hybrid workplace is here to stay with Gallup suggesting it’s the future for most offices, especially considering that the “return to office” may not be what we’d expected – or as popular a choice as we thought.

While hybrid employees may be thriving, there are some situations that leaders are finding challenging to replicate when their teams are working from home (or doing remote work), like fostering those all-important watercooler moments.

We’ll dive into why these casual conversations are important for the hybrid team and how you can make these moments happen at a time when interactions are more scheduled than spontaneous.

What’s working well when it comes to hybrid working?

Just quickly, let’s cover what we mean when we talk about a hybrid working environment. Opensourced Workplace suggests there are five different types of hybrid work models. Still, we can generally align on the idea that hybrid work means fulfilling your role from a combination of onsite (or in-office) and remote working environments, giving rise to a mix of co-located and distributed workforce.

We can distil down what many hybrid teams like about this flexible arrangement into a few key points:

  • Employees feel they can get more work done when they’re at their most productive
  • Hybrid working can ease the anxiety over the full “return to office
  • Organizations now have the HR software to easily manage remote teams
  • It gives employees autonomy over decision-making around where and how they work (and employees feel trusted by their managers which improves company culture and engagement)
  • There’s less perceived pressure on employees and more time (and space) for self-development, learning, and reflection

However, with so many positive factors attributed to working in a hybrid environment, there still remains a clear challenge with creating the same kind of company culture with opportunities for social interaction you get with the in-office arrangement – or better.

FREE TOOLKIT: Managing hybrid and remote teams

What are water cooler moments and why do you need them?

Water cooler moments are the impromptu “bumping intos” or gatherings of team members and other people across your company that create social interactions and moments of “small talk”. Back in the 9-5 office days, this typically took place around a water cooler, hence the name. These interactions help employees break up their day, connect with other staff members, engage in relaxed non-work related chatter, nurture work relationships, and create opportunities for collaboration.

Why are they important? Maintaining social connection is just as – if not, more – valuable than engagement and performance (and many other super important things that need to be maintained across hybrid and remote teams).

Social interaction in the workplace positively affects employee wellbeing, productivity, and engagement. Research in psychology shows that social interactions play an important role in wellbeing so when employees experience these moments, employee engagement often goes up.

Gallup’s research has repeatedly shown a strong correlation between having a best friend at work and the amount of effort employees put into their job, saying that “…women who strongly agree they have a best friend at work are more than twice as likely to be engaged (63%) compared with the women who say otherwise (29%)”.

Not to mention that leaders who encourage informal social interactions can directly promote the development of positive relationships and significantly influence and improve employee satisfaction. It’s clear that positive employee mental health and wellbeing is critical to keeping your team engaged and performing at their best. You can’t have the latter without focusing on the former.

FREE TOOLKIT: Understanding and improving wellbeing at work

The challenge with building connections in a hybrid team

The key thing to remember when it comes to fostering water cooler moments is that they’re not scheduled or planned; they’re serendipitous. These random run-ins, informal chats, quick catch-ups, and friendly face-to-face exchanges play such an important role in workplace social interaction but they’re the first thing to get cut in a remote environment.

Some say that, on an even deeper level, not having water cooler moments in the workplace can have a negative effect on the ways in which you connect with your team on the whole. This happens when you start to create work-from-home biases because the “…disproportionate amount of work-related interactions could create a self-fulfilling prophecy,” according to Marker, who suggest that, “When you’re working remotely, you’re far less likely to have these casual interactions, which means that the percentage of interactions you have with every one of your coworkers will soon skew heavily into work-related territory.”

How do we create these serendipitous moments?

So, how do we capture all of this when we’re not always meeting face-to-face or given the time or space to experience these impromptu social interactions? The good news is that hybrid working environments can still lend themselves to meaningful moments that build social connections within your team and across teams – whether your workforce is working from home, your employees mostly work remotely, your people are globally dispersed, or your company has a combination of some or all of these setups.

Firstly, you should consider a few key notions:

  • How deeply you understand and care about your employees’ need for social interaction across remote work (and whether or not you’re treating this as a priority alongside other actions and goals).
  • How your team typically maintains social connections (What would they specifically need in order to recreate the kind of enjoyable interactions they’d be used to in an office environment?).
  • How you can boost this social engagement even when your employees are working from home or remotely; Believe it or not, it takes a structured approach and action plan to create casual, serendipitous moments.

TIP: Start to understand your employees’ needs by gaining continuous feedback and using tools like sentiment analysis to get a pulse on your workforce’s wellbeing.

Employee Wellness Check-Ins | intelliHR

Building a plan for “unplanned” social interactions

Though it may sound counterintuitive, it helps to have a plan around facilitating water cooler moments, thereby giving your team purposeful opportunities to take part in casual social interactions. You can get started with these three tried and tested strategies:

1. Use technology to create virtual “small talk”

Small talk plays a key role in workplace communication and is conducive to productivity and team building as it helps people get to know one another, find common ground and create bonds. Technology can provide the ideal environment for distributed teams to engage in chatter. Even though 72% of companies use social technologies in some way, very few are anywhere near to achieving their full potential benefit of raising the productivity of high-skill workers by 20-25% according to McKinsey. Here’s what you can do:

IDEA #1: Create social Slack/messaging channels to build communities around similar interests like pets, a book club, sports, gaming, etc. You can then integrate apps like Donut to automate random conversations and encourage mutual celebrations.

2. Block out team social time each week

Taking the lead to set aside a specific block of time for your team on a Friday afternoon, mid-week, or even on Monday morning to kick-start the week (whatever works for your people) gives them the space and opportunity to connect with one another without the pressure of trying to fit in social time between tasks. Remember to book it on a day and time that’s inclusive for all of your team regardless of timezone.

IDEA #2: Schedule a recurring weekly group coffee call or fun games session where team members can opt in or out; this will encourage free-flowing conversation and engagement. Or, you could encourage team members to join a regular meeting 10 minutes early to catch up with colleagues.

RELATED: 7 better ways to meet remotely without Zoom video conferencing

3. Give kudos and recognition freely

Employee recognition positively impacts employee mental health but when you’re working in a hybrid business, you can tend to lose those authentic random moments where kudos are given verbally/in-person between managers and employees, and/or peers. Because water cooler moments often involve talking a little about our achievements/giving praise and/or celebrating our peers – even as simple as saying “happy birthday” or “well done on passing your probation” or “happy five-year anniversary” – this recognition can go a long way/make our team members feel appreciated and supported for positive moment inside and outside of work. Creating an environment where kudos can be given digitally (and often) is key to bringing back that good feeling of giving and receiving recognition wherever you’re doing your work.

IDEA #3: Integrate a recognition system like Bonusly into your work management platform or messaging tool on top of enabling peer-to-peer feedback in your HRIS – so kudos can be given and received continuously through multiple HR software.

Making watercooler moments a priority

Building moments of collaboration and camaraderie should factor into your remote team management strategy (and your regular team management activities) whether your team works from home permanently, you have a hybrid team, and/or you manage global teams. Even though traditional water cooler moments may be a thing of the past, there are some easy, quick ideas you can put into place which will likely make a huge difference to your peoples’ wellbeing, engagement, and even your organization’s overall productivity.

intelliHR is a people management platform helping HR, leaders and managers enhance performance, culture, engagement and retention. With built-in HRIS and powerful real-time analytics, see how the platform works today.

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