|“Have you heard the rumour that Janet in HR is applying for the new payroll manager role?”|
“No way? She would never cope. I’m still waiting to get my holiday for next month signed off, I wouldn’t want to have to wait that long for my wages!” Laughter
“I know, and Paul in marketing reckons we are going to be getting new computers because Steve from downstairs overheard Leslie being asked to get a couple of quotes together…”
The water cooler conversations, or informal conversations, has been highlighted in the media as an example of how office workers are missing out on the human interaction that you only get in the workplace on a face-to-face level. Video calls and Zoom have been a great way to stay in touch, but tend to lead to very functional conversations, dealing with the business in hand and cutting out some of the small talk.
Not such a bad thing some might say, but there is a mental well-being issue at stake here too. Humans are not machines, we have needs outside of just being functional. We need social interaction on a personal level, but also to help our businesses to thrive. It is very difficult to ping ideas off of each other in an online brain-storming session, it lacks the creativity, the energy, the talking over each other, discussing, debating, disagreeing before arriving at the most brilliant of ideas that would never have been reached without that interaction.
However, there is an expectation now that many companies are going to adopt a new “hybrid” way of working – Greater flexibility and a balance between office time and working from home. Some will embrace this; others would prefer to just get back into the office and return to a sense of normality. Everyone is different, has different needs and feelings. So, how do you create a balance between offering lifestyle flexibility and avoiding creating divisions and exclusions? How do you stop the person that chooses to work from home more often from becoming the topic of gossip at the water cooler, or excluded from spontaneous discussions and conversations in the workplace?
The first step is for the employer to recognise the importance of the informal conversations and the benefits they bring to the business and take that into consideration when finalising the hybrid arrangements for the company. Once that is realised, a simple first step would be to have all members of the team in the office on at least one particular day. In a larger company it might not be the whole team, just specific departments on specific days.
That is when the magic can happen, bringing people together, keeping everyone informed and feeling a part of the team. Companies can take further actions to facilitate these informal discussions by encouraging people not to eat at their desks on these days and maybe even make sure that coffee machines and water coolers are not in individuals’ offices but in a shared environment that encourages movement away from their own workspace and into an area of interaction; even go so far as suggesting that time is set aside in the day to make a point of walking around, talking to fellow team members and triggering those conversations that can so often lead to some of the very best ideas.
For an employer the key is to provide opportunities for informal communications to happen naturally and not to force it with rigid structures and designated discussion times – That could potentially have the complete opposite effect. We are, after all humans, with changing moods and emotions.