Virtual Water Cooler Moments to Stay Connected While Working From Home
When I first moved to Austin after college I was nervous. One of my biggest questions was, “How do adults even make friends?” Up to that point, all of my best friendships had been made in a classroom. Fast-forward a few weeks to my first day at Service Direct. I was anxious but excited to start working for a company as a writer. By the end of that first week, any fears I had about making friends in the city were gone. Through lunchtime conversations, breakroom chats, and many other small exchanges my coworkers quickly made me feel welcomed to Austin. It’s those moments that I’ve missed the most during the last year and a half of remote work. Those seemingly effortless connections made over shared music taste or a favorite TV show are much harder to come by with a fully virtual team.
Of course, the safety of everyone at Service Direct is a top priority, and as the situation with the pandemic continues to put people at risk, we wanted to find ways to recreate those natural water cooler moments virtually. So far, we have found a number of fun, short activities that have provided great opportunities for our employees to talk about anything from books and movies to post-pandemic travel plans and weekend hiking spots. At Service Direct we, along with many other companies, are postponing the official reopening of our office. Because of that we wanted to share our virtual water cooler moments to hopefully help other businesses foster those connections that we have all been missing.
What Exactly is a Water Cooler Moment?
Originally, the term “water cooler moment” described the spontaneous conversations that occur between coworkers while getting water from an actual water cooler. The term has evolved to mean any unplanned, often short interaction between people that usually fosters a connection. Before COVID-19, my water cooler moments were usually in the office kitchen rooting around for a mid-afternoon snack. More often than not someone else would be heating up their lunch or retrieving a seltzer from the fridge and we would strike up conversations.
These moments not only improve employees’ sense of belonging at the company but they also provide interesting opportunities for the business that may not come about otherwise. A conversation between an engineer and a customer support representative, for example, could spark an idea about how the customer interface could be improved. But, these conversations don’t have to be about work at all; that’s the beauty of water cooler moments. The possibilities are endless.
Unplanned Water Cooler Moments
One of the most beautiful parts about the water cooler moments that I remember is the invigorating feeling of having a completely impromptu conversation with a coworker and forming a connection. There’s something incomparable about spontaneity in the workplace. Fortunately, we have been able to recreate these unplanned moments remotely in a few ways, including non-work Slack channels.
Watercooler Slack Channels
These Slack channels are intentionally not related to work in order to promote connections and conversations between Service Direct employees just like the ones that might have occurred when we were still in the office. One of the other great things about Slack channels is that even if you don’t have a response to someone’s post, you can always react with a funny emoji to show support.
- Cute Animals: This channel is where we do the one thing people never get tired of doing: sharing pictures of our cute pets. Whether it’s a photo of a cat walking on a laptop keyboard or a video of a dog begging for pets all day every day, the things sent in this channel are undeniably cute and a great way to form connections with each other.
- Delicious Eats: Have you ever cooked a meal so good that you just had to tell someone? Or maybe you went out for lunch and it was almost too pretty to eat. This channel is a great way for foodies to share cooking tips, restaurant recommendations, and unbeatable recipes. This can be an especially great way to welcome new team members who may be new to the area by providing can’t-miss local restaurant suggestions.
- Offbeat: Our offbeat channel is exactly what it sounds like. This is a place for employees to send anything and everything. Oftentimes people will send memes and funny stories about their lives as well as hilarious interactions with customers throughout the day. In fact, our Director of Search Marketing often sends funny Google searches that somehow have people landing on our pages. One of the best things I remember about working in the office is how little interactions break up the workday. This Slack channel helps to remind us all that we’re just people going about life in this crazy world.
- Book Club: I know I’m not alone in saying that it has been difficult to grapple with the sheer amount of time I’ve spent at home over the last year and a half due to the pandemic. One of the best ways many people have handled this has been picking up a new hobby or two. Personally, I began reading—a lot. Where I was once reading a book or two every couple of months, I am now at book number 83 of the year. The book club Slack channel has been a great way to connect with my coworkers as well as give and get book recommendations! We even meet every couple of months to discuss the book that we have been reading together.
- Wellness: When it became clear that the pandemic wasn’t just a “stay home for a couple of months and this will be over” kind of situation, one of the first things people had to figure out was how to stay healthy. Gyms and fitness centers closed, resulting in a massive at-home workout boom across the country. This Slack channel was our way to stay healthy—both physically and mentally—while connecting with one another. From using it to communicate during our wellness challenge last year to sharing yoga videos and pictures of motivating work-from-home setups, this channel has been integral to promoting wellness and connections within Service Direct.
These Slack channels have been and continue to be a great way to recreate the water cooler moments that we have been missing during the pandemic. They’re informal, fun, low-pressure spaces for people to share interests and form connections with coworkers that they may not interact with otherwise. They will also provide a space for fully-remote employees to stay connected with their coworkers even after we return to the office. For that reason, among many others, these Slack channels are here to stay at Service Direct.
Short Planned Water Cooler Moments
As much as we want to recreate water cooler moments as accurately as possible, spontaneity and all, with everyone working remotely it’s not always that easy. In addition to the Slack channels, which are useful for starting impromptu conversations between coworkers, we have also found that having a few short, planned events a month can really increase the volume of connections made. The key to making these events successful has been emphasizing that they are voluntary and brief. The last thing we all need is more meetings throughout the day, right? With proper communication these short planned events can be a respite from those meetings rather than building on top of everything else.
As a continuation of last year’s wellness challenge, we wanted to host a few events every month designed to help our employees relax and form connections over various wellness activities. Our Loyalty Team—a small group of employees chosen to coordinate these types of short, fun events—planned breathing sessions, stretch breaks, and yoga sessions, all with the goal of staying healthy and grounded together. The best part about these sessions so far? They are all shorter than 30 minutes and have absolutely nothing to do with work, hopefully making it possible for even the most stressed, hard-working employees to take a much-needed break during the week.
If you, like me, sometimes find yourself diving down a rabbit hole at work only to look up and find that lunchtime has come and gone and your stomach is begging for at least a snack, you might benefit from the activities designed to help our employees connect over a meal or a cup of coffee. Every couple of weeks we have marked out 20 to 30 minutes on the calendar to take a much needed lunch or coffee break and talk about anything but work.
These are probably the closest activities we have to accurately reproducing those water cooler moments that we used to have in the office. By implementing the rule that these breaks are not for work talk, we immediately encourage coworkers to talk about the other things in their lives that bring them joy or stress them out. Chances are there’s at least one other person who can relate and just like that: a connection made.
Ultimately staying safe and healthy is the most important thing in these unprecedented times, and for many companies that means continuing to primarily work from home. But, this new reality doesn’t mean that we have to lose the water cooler moments that were part of what made working in an office so much fun. With these tips we hope your company is able to find more accessible ways to promote those crucial moments and foster workplace wellness and relationships that may not otherwise occur. That is until we can all congregate around the office water cooler once again and talk about everything and nothing in the way that only coworkers can.