The Water Cooler Effect in a Digital World

If you lead a team that works at a distance, one of the most important things that you can do is...

December 28, 2019

The 2016 news that Verizon was to buy Yahoo’s internet business resurfaced Marissa Mayers’s 2013 decision to ban Yahoo employees from working from home. Explaining her decision, she said: “People are more productive when they’re not alone, but they’re more collaborative and innovative when they’re together.  Some of the best ideas come from pulling two different ideas together.” (Marissa Mayer Defends Her Work From Home Ban)

This exemplifies what I have called “Serendipity as Strategy” – where companies are intentionally creating bottlenecks so that their employees are more likely to interact with each other.  Most of these examples are dependent upon designing physical spaces for employees to work in the same place, at the same time.  As MIT Professor Alex “Sandy” Pentland explains, these interactions are important because with “increased cohesion likely comes an increase in things such as shared tacit knowledge, shared attitudes and work habits, and social support.” (The Water Cooler Effect: Fewer Memos, More Coffee Breaks).

Meanwhile there is a growing number of colleagues that are not co-located, whether it is remote working, telecommuting or working across offices in different cities and countries.  While early assessments claimed the ease and low cost of the transmission of information would lead to The Death of Distance,  research by Ben Waber demonstrates that proximity continues to be important.  In one study “engineers who shared a physical office were 20% more likely to stay in touch digitally than those who worked elsewhere.” (Workspaces That Move People).

There is clearly a need in today’s digital age to find better ways to work across distances.  The problem is not about transmitting information more quickly or cheaply:  in a moment’s notice, we can have a video chat with someone in London, Amsterdam or San Francisco.  The problem is that it is just as easy to disconnect from the conversation once the business at hand has been completed. What we’ve lost are the discoveries we made while we were in search of something else, walking in the hallway, waiting in lunch line or standing by the water cooler.

A step in the right direction is what has been called “structured unstructured time” and has been highlighted in two separate articles in Harvard Business Review:

  • In The Secrets of Great Teamwork, Martine Haas and Mark Mortensen describe it as, “time blocked off in the schedule to talk about matters not directly related to the task at hand.”
  • In Communicate Better With Your Global Team, Tsedal Neely states, “So in a sense, when I talk about structuring unstructured time, it may feel very inefficient to spend six, seven, or eight minutes in a one-hour meeting during this conversation. But at the end of the day, it really buys improved work relationships, improved work results, and can be extremely efficient.”

It is an incredibly simple idea, something each of us can implement in our next conference call.  But it is of such importance that management should not leave it up to each individual. Specifically, since today’s work environment is often overly focused on ‘work-related’ activities, many employees may not believe such activities would be well seen by management. Leaders need to clearly communicate that It is important to take time to connect and bond with coworkers and that this is work-related.

If you lead a team that works at a distance, one of the most important things that you can do is arrange for your staff to connect and speak to each other on what is traditionally seen as ‘non-work related’ topics. This should be done on an ongoing basis, so pick a frequency that fits with the realities of your organization; a good place to start is for each employee to have a get-to-know-each-other chat with a different colleague each month. That will help build rapport which will be crucial for effectively working together. Just as LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner said of his practice of scheduling nothing, “don’t leave unscheduled moments to chance. [They are] the best investment you can make in yourself and the single most important productivity tool I use.”

Michael Soto is the co-founder of Spark Collaboration.  Spark helps organizations connect their stakeholders to share ideas face-to-face. Using Spark, organizations can match stakeholders one-on-one for real-time social interactions. By meeting over coffee, lunch or video, stakeholders can create real social connections that can help them be more connected, innovative and ultimately more productive.