An Era of Lost Water Cooler Colleagues: How Remote Workers are Replacing Human Interaction
Remote and hybrid workers are getting creative to ease their craving for in-person connection.
Dessidre Fleming via Unsplash
By Alexandra Frost
5 minute read

When the pandemic began, Devon Fata, CEO of digital product design consultancy and staffing firm Pixoul, knew he needed the friendship and companionship that he was used to having in person. So, he opened a Zoom call with his friend, and never turned it off. Six months later, he was still sitting at home, working virtually, with his friend on an open Zoom call in the background.

“Sometimes we would go hours without talking after saying hello, but something about the ambient sounds of another person, even when we weren’t directly interacting, did a lot to calm me and help me focus and feel comfortable,” Fata told The Org. “Sometimes you just need someone to be there for you.”

Fata is far from alone, turning to technology and other creative activities to fill the void we never thought we’d miss from “water cooler” conversations in the hallways, breakrooms and cubicles of in-person offices. Here’s how employees are surviving, and connecting, as remote work moves from a temporary solution to the future of work.

If icebreakers aren’t working, try more intellectually-oriented activities

Everyone has sat through one too many painful, awkward, Zoom-based ice breakers at some point in the pandemic, as bosses with great intentions try to pull people together and recreate genuine connection. But if silliness isn’t really working, don’t fight it.

Akhila Satish, CEO of Meseekna and a 2021 Forbes Next 1000 award winner, said, “Activities that are sort of intellectual in their orientation…cognitive, rather, can also be very helpful for breaking the ice around water cooler kind of conversation. It’s really actually hard when you just throw people in a [virtual] room and say, ‘Okay we’re going to talk and make some real connections.’” She said her own team is looking towards a book club to create those genuine conversations.

Teams can also walk the line of fun but somewhat structured by having colleagues present about non work-related topics. Cornelius Fichtner, President of OSP International LLC, an education provider platform that works on exam simulators, does this with his team.

“I basically thought…‘What if we bring long group meetings back minus the work agenda? What if we just… hang out?’ [We] make presentations about our cats, our kids, our mental health, and sit around going through them unproductively,” he said. “So far, this has been a big hit. Nothing really replaces human interaction 100%, but I know we all feel grateful for these little group breaks.”

Use platforms that encourage informal connections

Sure, we can all send a text message. But even a group chat might not be able to replace a conversation you used to have around the lunch table at work. Instead, some bosses and employees are looking to technology to create opportunities to bond informally, such as through Slack and other messaging platforms.

Leslie Radka, Founder and Hiring Manager of GreatPeopleSearch, said Slack channels are key for socializing at work: “For sharing news, discussing hobbies, swapping tunes and recipes, providing inspiration, or simply complaining.” She thinks that company leaders providing these spaces matters. “You’re showing that it’s crucial to engage with each other as humans — not simply coworkers — by purposefully providing designated spaces for non-work talk.”

Her point that complaining is often a means of connection for employees is something that leaders also must think through — will these spaces be monitored by bosses and team leaders, or will employees be left to their own devices to speak freely? Satish said that depends on the work environment leaders have built long before the pandemic.

“If you end up creating a culture that is very blunt and open, then it matters a lot less. If you do have sort of a more hierarchical structure, then it would make sense to split up [leaders and employees] so people get the space in which to actually engage,” she said. But much like an in person boss noticing who sits together at a coffee break, she said it can be beneficial for leaders to “keep tabs on who’s interacting with whom and create sort of intentionality around it.” That information can possibly be used to group people who work well together, or two who haven’t interacted much for a project.

Turn to your neighbors, not your coworkers

In spite of best intentions, for some a Zoom call with colleagues won’t ever replace live human interaction. But you might notice that you and your neighbors are all sitting in your homes, close together but isolated, needing the same thing. Organizational Psychologist Stephanie Bolster McCannon said that even small talk has been reported to be one of the most missed aspects of work.

“The importance of feeling connected by a small greeting of hello, catching up on weekend activities helps us to feel seen and heard. This seemingly ubiquitous exchange research concludes is important for collaboration, innovation, and performance,” she said. “It also keeps energy levels high and a degree of satisfaction. Humans are, after all, social creatures.”

Interacting with your neighbors has filled that need for Josh Snead, CEO of Rainwalk Pet Insurance, he said, admitting he didn’t even know his neighbor’s names pre-pandemic.

“All of that started changing around the summer of 2020 when we discovered that we were all stuck working from home together. What started as awkward waves through the kitchen windows from our respective ‘desks’ has evolved into a weekly happy hour and rotating coffee sharing,” he said. Now his coffee sharing tradition has evolved into mid-morning outdoor breaks with neighbors, especially with nice weather, with everyone rotating coffee duty. The in-office water cooler will never look as appealing again.

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