For decades, the water cooler reigned as an iconic symbol of the modern workplace. It served as a gathering spot, a catalyst for spontaneous conversations, and a social hub where colleagues from different departments would converge and share stories that transcended the boundaries of job titles and hierarchies. Jokes were cracked, personal anecdotes were shared, and friendships were forged. In fact, I am convinced that many alive today owe their very existence to a relationship that started with a “chance” encounter at the water cooler.
The pandemic, of course, changed all of that. Suddenly the office was empty, and hybrid and remote work became a thing. Water cooler sales since the pandemic? Now there’s a spreadsheet worth poring over. As we navigate this new era of work, the absence of the physical water cooler has left a noticeable void, with many left wondering how to recreate those serendipitous moments that fostered relationship-building and camaraderie in the office.
It was never about the water
To replace the water cooler, albeit virtually, it’s essential to understand the purpose it served and the problem it solved. Spoiler alert: It was never about the water. As highlighted in an insightful article from The Guardian, offices often have transitional spaces like kitchens or couches that offer breaks throughout the day. We weren’t meant to be doing back-to-back Teams meetings - the workplace just wasn’t meant to be that intense.
There’s also evidence that those innocuous social interactions around the water cooler were more crucial than we realized. Last year’s SRE Report revealed that hybrid work policies make the communication and collaboration necessary to produce reliable, resilient systems harder to fulfill. When asked what facet of work life had been affected the most by sustained work-from-home policies, 44.7% of respondents said “Relationship building” was much or somewhat worse.
Despite that, nearly 50% of respondents claimed that innovation velocity was “about the same” and productivity was 31.3% net “better” since working from home. Naturally, we asked whether maintaining this level of innovation was sustainable in an environment where building relationships is harder to do. It’s been noted, too, that such high levels of productivity in the hybrid workplace can be attributed to employees over-exerting themselves. Apparently, without snacks and water-cooler chats, many find themselves working for extended, unbroken hours.
So how do we navigate the hybrid and remote landscape to build strong relationships that go beyond physical proximity? I recently posed this, and other questions to Catchpointers, Travis Jones, Director, Learning and Development and Jaclyn Hernandez, Enterprise Customer Success Manager. Here are their top tips for building and maintaining relationships without a water cooler in sight.
The art of relationship building in a watercooler-less world
How do you establish rapport with new team members you’ve never met in person?
Travis: I think, for me at least, time is one of the most important components. You cannot expect to build rapport in one 30-minute or 1-hour 1:1 each week – there is just too much work stuff to discuss! During our onboarding program, LevelUp, I spend at least one week with each new hire, with multiple sessions each day. We get our work done during those meetings, but I also make sure to build in enough buffer to always ask them how things are going or about their weekend. Those little touches make people feel both cared about and for.
Jaclyn: I have found that genuinely appreciating someone’s work or achievements (even if they’re small wins) as they get comfortable in their new role, plus directly communicating that appreciation to them (even if it’s just a Teams ping), has kicked off some of my favorite colleague friendships.
How do you balance work-related conversations and personal, ‘water cooler’ type discussions in a virtual environment?
Travis: Build in buffer. I always book about 5-10 minutes longer than needed or make a point to work through the meeting content quicker than allotted. Worst case, we end on time, but best case, it always gives a little “check-in” buffer to talk about things other than work that people are passionate about.
Jaclyn: If you have the chance to talk with the person on a daily or weekly basis, it’s pretty common/natural that the first few minutes of the call is spent chatting about non-work stuff (TV shows, recent family activities, upcoming vacation plans, etc.); fun topics that may be important to one or both of us. But if the other person isn’t part of the day-to-day workflow, sometimes it’s just as satisfying to send/receive a ping saying, “Hey there! How are things?”.
Can you share any fun or successful virtual social events or team-building activities you’ve participated in?
Travis: Once a quarter, I get my team together to share their MBOs (commitments for what they will get done that quarter) so each knows what their peer is working on. For that meeting, I book 1 hour and use 30 min for MBOs and the other 30 to play some sort of team-building game or activity. In the last year, we have done an online escape room, played “What Year Was It?” against another team, and we most recently played a game of CityGuesser to test our geographical knowledge. I always get positive feedback on those team-building events, which helps the team build rapport outside of the typical day-to-day meetings.
How vital are face-to-face video meetings for building relationships? Can strong relationships be built over text-based communication tools alone?
Travis: I’m sure it is possible, but it is difficult. My team uses video, starting with me as the leader. If I don’t use video, that sets the tone of our interactions. Of course, there are times when that’s not possible – and in those situations, feel free to keep your camera off. Even if the other person keeps their camera off, however, I like to keep mine on just to show my investment in the conversation and employee.
How do you handle conflict resolution remotely?
Jaclyn: Everyone gets frustrated at times, but never send anything in the heat of the moment while your blood might be up. Type something out, sure, but come back to it later after you’ve calmed down and then see if you want to send it the same way (keeping in mind who, down the line, might get forwarded/see the email). Another way to handle things is maybe during a “quick sync”, talk it out. Try to come to the call positive, calm, and open to discussing real solutions. It depends on the conflict of course, but in a hybrid world where you interact with so many different teams and partners without “seeing” them at work, there might just be unknown differences in workflow or goals/success metrics at play. Understanding those potential differences or motivations could help strengthen your work relationships and collaboration, as well reduce conflict.
Life beyond the water cooler
When Halsey Willard Taylor and Luther Haws invented the water cooler as we know it in 1906, few would have realized the profound impact it would have on wider society. As we chart the new landscapes of virtual relationships, we find ourselves in a similar position. Just like the physical water cooler transformed workplace dynamics, we have the opportunity to embrace innovative strategies and digital tools to cultivate meaningful connections.
We can build and maintain strong relationships that transcend physical proximity by embracing intentional communication, creating virtual spaces for casual interactions, and fostering a sense of community. Here’s to building connections in the evolving landscape of work, no matter the distance.