Water Cooler Talk in the Virtual Workplace

One of the concerns I often hear from managers that resist telework is around the level of interaction or collaboration in the virtual environment.  Virtual workers are at an obvious disadvantage, the argument goes, because they miss out on the casual interactions and spontaneous conversations that naturally occur in the traditional office environment.  What about the value of bumping into coworkers in the hallway or impromptu discussions in the break room, managers will ask.  Don’t those exchanges lead to new ideas or solutions?  Conversely, is the organization losing innovative ideas or its competitive edge if people are dispersed through cyber space?

Here is my take: conversations around the proverbial water cooler are highly overrated.

I’m not knocking all physical face-to-face interactions.  Blended physical and virtual interactions are healthy, and sometimes warranted, if feasible.  But, in-person meetings are usually not necessary. 

If Steve Jobs were still around, he would probably disagree with me.  According to Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of Jobs, when Pixar’s headquarters was built in 1999, Jobs wanted his staff of artists, writers, and computer scientists to come in constant contact with each other.  Employee mailboxes, meeting rooms, cafeteria, coffee bar, gift shop, and bathrooms were moved to the center of the building. 

I am not one to argue with the genius of Steve Jobs, but I have yet to meet (or even hear about) the group of employees that solved the organization’s complex dilemma or invented the company’s new product while waiting for their Lean Cuisine to pop in the break area microwave.    

In reality, new ideas or solutions to complicated problems are usually developed by teams over time as they focus on a particular area.  My personal belief is that the water cooler myth prevails because people are more open to the ideas of people they see regularly.    We are creatures dominated by our primary sense, eyesight.  We tend to trust or bond with people we can see rather than those we only hear at the other end of the conference call line. 

So, what can leaders do?  If possible, get people to meet in person at the start of a new assignment, new project, or new team.  Their virtual interactions will become easier if they meet live, especially when first introduced.  Occasional in person meetings are also healthy too.  If meeting live is not possible then use video, preferably high quality video.  I always recommend using video as much as possible when meeting virtually.  If video is out of the question and audio is the only option, spend some extra time to get to know people and create a relationship.  In the end, virtual interactions can be just as positive as traditional, face-to-face interaction with a little extra effort.

– Jason


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