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The Concentrated Water Cooler

I wrote previously about how remote leadership takes a concerted effort. For companies that have gone and stayed remote due to the pandemic, the work environment has been severely altered. What maybe wasn’t so clear is that this means all of the behaviors that make up what work looks like also need reexamination. That includes how co-workers socialize and fill in the gaps of what the company does with the culture of who the company is comprised of.

Water cooler talk is the old slang that stuck around, denoting the place where co-workers might find themselves engaging in conversations beyond the boundaries of work-at-hand. These encounters are casual and provide an opportunity for personalities to come out and tighter relationships to form, one water refill at a time.

”Did you catch the game last night?”

I don’t know who talks like that, but it seems to be the right type of thing to use as an example here.

In the age of remote work, there are a lot of culture-building moments like that lost behind the screen divide. So, in similar fashion to remote leadership, building strong remote-based company cultures takes a concerted effort.

Should you schedule a 10-minute zoom or slack huddle every morning? I don’t think so. In most cases, trying to emulate the same concepts that work in-person can be an even bigger issue than not doing them at all.

And on top of that, we should also reconsider the affordances of remote work. Like what was previously commute and water cooler time, may now be time spent with the kids before school, or conversations with your partner or friends, delivering value back to you.

While value back to you does help the company, because you and your well-being matter. This doesn’t alleviate the need to establish some sort of social culture between people at work; relationships matter, especially at work.

So I propose the concentrated water cooler: The idea that each of those small but now missed daily social interactions a company would accumulate each day across many employees should be viewed as accruing a debt of social need. And thus, as that debt accumulates to a non-trivial amount, it should be paid off in a larger lump sum: Get people together! Once or twice a year, fly them out, plan some events, make it simple, light and fun, invest in your social and cultural capital. Cancel work for two or three days and let people do what they do.

Now I’m going to be particular about this: If you have a big company, split it up. Two’s company, three’s a crowd, five to thirty is a party and any more than that is a panic attack waiting to happen. Get a few teams or a department together. The folks that already see each other day-in and day-out on zoom. That’s it. The goal is relationship building, and the good news is usually it just takes a neat atmosphere, some food and drink, and people will do what they do. Skip the games and agenda, or at least keep it real loose.