Workplace socializing also known as "water cooler talk" has recently been a subject of study, and the findings have been somewhat surprising to many people in managerial positions. These studies determined certain benefits that by now may seem intuitive. Benefits such as more powerful connections, better workplace engagement, and more workplace efficiency. So, it seems that what appears to be slacking off may actually be an important stress reliever, and play a role in team-building, among many other benefits.
What is Water Cooler Talk?
Water cooler talk refers to the casual conversations that take place among colleagues while gathered around the office water cooler. These chats cover a wide range of topics, from work-related matters to personal interests, and are an integral part of the daily office routine.
Modern workplaces are trying to navigate the balance between good water cooler chat and bad. That is, constructive socializing and negativity or time-wasting. Further, with more remote work than ever before, managers are trying to figure out how to bring these benefits to the virtual world.
We’re going to go over what makes water cooler talk so productive, how to keep it that way, and how to start up some conversations in your workplace, whether physical or virtual. So, keep reading!
Benefits of Water Cooler Talk
Water cooler chat has long been considered a waste of time in the workplace, but recent studies have shown that this informal socializing has several surprising benefits. From boosting communication and teamwork to reducing stress and improving retention, water cooler chat can significantly impact employee engagement and productivity.
Harvard business school reports that social time at work can improve the performance of teams and communication patterns by 50%. This is even true in high-throughput environments like call centers.
We’re going to go over some pointers for how to foster this kind of constructive socializing at your workplace, but first, check out some of the ways in which water cooler chat might benefit your workers.
Getting To Know Your Teammates
One challenge for remote teams is getting to know each other personally, which can impact company culture and employee engagement. While informal conversations around an actual water cooler may not be possible for remote employees, virtual water cooler chats during break time or coffee breaks in virtual meetings can solve that struggle.
These virtual conversations allow remote teams to engage with each other personally and build stronger relationships, even if they're not physically in the same location.
Spice Up Your Virtual Meetings
One way to spice up virtual meetings and build a more robust company culture is to incorporate virtual water cooler conversations or informal chats during breaks. This is especially important for remote teams, where employees may feel disconnected from their coworkers. By allowing for personal-level conversations and encouraging employees to get to know each other, you can boost employee engagement and morale. In addition, consider incorporating virtual team-building activities or coffee breaks during meetings to give remote employees a much-needed break from work and a chance to connect with their colleagues on a more personal level.
Improve Your Company Culture
To improve your company culture, it's essential to focus on building connections between your remote employees. Virtual water cooler conversations and team-building activities provide opportunities for informal discussions that foster relationships and increase employee engagement and morale. Virtual meetings can be a great way to bring remote teams together, but it's essential to incorporate much-needed breaks and time for coffee breaks, just like in an actual water cooler setting. By encouraging personal connections on a personal level, you can create a stronger company culture and a more productive and engaged workforce.
Employees who have a healthy balance of needs met in the workplace stay for longer. Cooler chat can be an opportunity to blow off some steam, have a mental break where it’s needed or even receive some form of recognition for work. All of these create motivation among those involved and help to provide pleasant associations with the workplace.
A comfortable and pleasant working environment significantly boosts retention, which amounts to a major cost-saving for the company, and higher rates of work proficiency.
Bridge communication between levels
Formal communication between managers and employees can be awkward, and forced casual communication can be even worse. Cooler chat creates an unofficial channel of communication between the two, improving transparency, increasing engagement, and ultimately building trust.
It also allows for more honest communication, since it’s considered to be more ‘off the record’ than official meetings.
Sparks Creativity and Innovation in Informal workplace meeting
On that note, although it’s unstructured and unscheduled, water cooler talk can be a valuable form of office communication. The grapevine works to spread information very efficiently, and this can be a strength in some places.
Organizational Network Analyses suggest that 4% of influencers in the office can get information to70% of the workforce. Further, half of the influencers are typically unknown to management, making it clear that missing out on water cooler chat may be costing you valuable insights into the dynamics of your workplace.
Some organizations have recognized the way chatting brings people together, and are actually scheduling it into their working week. Setting aside time in the day for staff to chat about anything at all can boost collaboration, help people get to know one another, and bring teams closer. Simply by sharing social time with those who aren’t typically in the same space, you can get a significant boost to loyalty, group dynamics and collaboration.
Repetitive or difficult tasks increase stress, and workers need to be able to recover from this stress when it suits them. Sharing ideas, telling jokes, or just making idle chit-chat provides an opportunity to regenerate, boost creativity, and promote relaxation in the workplace. Stress (much like fear) is the mind-killer. Therefore, reducing stress increases mental output, overall productivity, and, most importantly, accuracy.
Acts as Employee Feedback
Virtual watercoolers provide welcoming spaces for teams to build meaningful connections while having candid conversations on important feedback—catering to varied communication needs yet with clarity to voice diverse viewpoints. By recreating informal opportunities for staff to be heard, these conversations help organizations proactively respond and take action on input shared, ultimately driving more empathetic remote collaboration.
So yes, there is tons of value added from great watercooler conversations. But what do you say? Do you ever find yourself lost as to what topics are good, fun, engaging, and appropriate?
If you have CultureBot, you won't need to worry, our tool has hundreds of great topics that it will send for you!
However, if you're still on the fence, here are a few ideas...
50 Innovative Watercooler Topic Ideas
- Share a picture of the most fun or exciting thing you’ve done recently in your free time!
- What do you think is the most underrated Taylor Swift song and why?
- Show and tell! Pick anything in your immediate surroundings you'd like to share - person, animal, inanimate object, funny, sentimental - it's all fair game! Share a photo and why you chose it.
- Post a photo from your favorite work event so far
- What does your desk look like? Share a photo of your workspace!
- Post a photo of the meal you are most proud of this week.
- Post a photo of your celebrity doppelganger
- Share a photo of something most people don't know about you
- What's your happy place? Share a photo.
- What shows are you binge watching lately?
- What's the best book you've read recently?
- If you could only eat one cuisine for a month, what would you choose?
- Who has the cutest pet or the funniest animal story to share?
- What's your favorite way to unwind over the weekend?
- If you could have any superpower, what would you choose?
- What's the most amazing place you've ever traveled to?
- What's your favorite home-cooked meal? Share the recipe!
- What's your personal claim to fame?
- Post snapshots from your favorite workout spots or sports.
- Show off your latest household DIY project and inspire others.
- Dig up old nostalgic photos for some laughs and walks down memory lane.
- If you could paint anything, what would you create? Share some of your art.
- What crafts or hobbies help spark your creativity? Show some examples of your work.
- What innovative solutions have you come up with recently - either for work or in daily life?
- What music inspires you when you need creative juices flowing?
- Share a short story, poem, or other creative writing piece you’ve been working on.
- Show photos of the latest DIY or hands-on project you've been focused on.
- Describe an invention you'd like to create if you had unlimited resources.
- If you started your own company, what creative products or services would you offer?
- Share a drawing, logo mockups, or other visual design you’ve created recently.
- Discuss a creative hobby you’ve taken up this year or would like to explore.
- Share a funny story or quirky habit of your kids, partner, pets or closest pals.
- Post photos from a recent wedding, anniversary, or family celebration and share details.
- Discuss favorite family traditions - whether holidays, reunions, recipes or more.
- Show snapshots of a family or friend vacation and talk about what you enjoyed most.
- Share a movie or TV show you've watched lately with your family or friend group and recommend.
- For Parents: chat about your kid’s latest sports game, play or big activity and the parent perspective.
- Share cute photos of your pet being their adorable selves to brighten everyone's day!
- Post funny stories or videos of your pets getting into mischief.
- Discuss new toys, treats or accessories you've found that your pets love.
- Chat about the latest pet training challenges you’re working on and ask others for advice.
- Show snapshots from a fun day at the dog park playing fetch or peaceful cat naps in the sun.
- Recommend your pet's favorite healthy recipes or products to fellow animal lovers.
- Talk about pet charities or shelters you support for some do-good inspiration.
- Share photos from pet birthdays, gotcha days or celebrations!
- Would you rather have X-ray vision or be able to fly?
- What are five things you couldn’t live without?
- Where's your ultimate destination on your wanderlust list? Share pics from your favorite getaways or dream trips you hope to take someday.
- What's the tastiest restaurant you've discovered lately?
- Embarrassing mishaps happen! Share silly stories of accidental emails sent, clothing mix-ups, virtual meeting gaffes, or any incident that still makes you facepalm with laughter.
Positive, Personal Water Cooler Topics
Feeling connected with colleagues on a human level can greatly benefit workplace culture, engagement, and inclusion for all - perhaps especially for more introverted team members. Those facing loneliness, difficult life updates, unseen personal struggles, or even just shyness unwinding around coworkers may appreciate positive outlets that foster social bonds.
Simple watercooler discussions about family milestones, pets, entertainment interests, or favorite foods can remind coworkers of shared humanity and nurture trust. This lays the groundwork for goodwill during unavoidable work conflicts. With care not to distract significantly nor make anyone uncomfortable, personal small talk brings more voices into the fold. Here are some tips for those more personal virtual chats:
- Family – this is usually a simple one, but it can be a bit of a minefield. It’s fine to ask someone how their kid got on at the game last week, but it’s probably not a good idea to bring up a divorce or something that was told to you in private, especially if it was told to you by someone else. In general, though, family is a nice easy topic to cover, as long as you respect boundaries, and it can make people feel known and welcomed.
- The Game – This is a classic. It’s an easy ice-breaker, but it may fall flat if you’re in the wrong crowd, and does risk isolating people who aren’t into sports. Again, while this has a lot of applications with the right people, it can take some navigating to avoid arbitrary rivalries or inciting animosity. Sports topics, like politics (which isn’t on this list), should be kept general at the water cooler, to avoid triggering the undesired response.
- Outside Hobbies – If you already know what someone is into, it’s a good way to engage by asking them about their hobbies. If you don’t, it’s equally effective to find out. Taking an interest in something that they’re interested in makes them feel valued, and when discussing hobbies, it provides a mental holiday from work stresses. It’s also a great way to show that you’ve remembered something personal about your colleagues.
- Movies or shows – Another crowd pleaser, talking about upcoming or current movies breaks the ice, and learning the particular preferences of your coworkers can provide a common ground for cooler talk too.
- Birthdays or holidays – just like with hobbies, giving the opportunity for people to talk about what they’re enjoying or looking forward to creates an atmosphere of trust and companionship and is a great sign of leadership.
With all of these suggestions, remember that the water cooler is a public forum, and respect that people may not want their personal information spread from it. Actually, there are a few ‘best practices’ that might be worth following if you’re planning to get involved at the water cooler yourself.
Water Cooler Code of Conduct
Some of these have been touched on already, and most, if not all, should at least sound familiar, but it’s worth going over some ground rules to both follow and enforce when you make use of the water cooler as a facilitator of workplace comfort.
- The first is to listen. Listening covers most of the basics of what you can gain from facilitating water cooler talk in the first place. Listening makes people feel valued, and you’ll be able to learn what people really think.
- Relating to this, put down your phone. Try to lead by example as someone who is present for the conversation, even if the conversation isn’t important or interesting.
- Bring up topics, but don’t try to top others’ stories! Ideally, you’re using this time to bond with your workers, so be humble, and let them lead the narrative.
- Most importantly, pay attention to the direction, duration, and quality of the conversations. While most people act in good faith and respect that the water cooler is a short break, others may start descending into gossip or procrastination, and a little nudge should be enough to prevent bad habits from forming.
Most conversations will readily police themselves, and almost everyone knows where the lines are, so this kind of monitoring should rarely be necessary. As a manager, you can mostly focus on stimulating the conversations, and you can do that by introducing topics of conversation.
If you’re still not sure where to start, take a look at some of the previous water cooler questions.
These questions work well in a real-life environment, but with more and more offices making use of remote or hybrid work, there are efforts to maintain water cooler culture in the virtual world.
Implementing Remote Work Water Cooler Chat
Despite the name, water cooler talk has existed long before the invention of the water cooler, and it will continue long after offices are a thing of the past. As it stands, there are already strategies to promote water cooler topics for remote workers, as a way of benefitting from the principle, even in a hybrid environment.
Remote work chat even opens up a series of other dimensions to water cooler conversations. While live chat is always an option, asynchronous communication is a lot easier with message boards, and it allows people to exchange ideas without having to be in the same place at the same time.
Many companies are already using real-time chat apps, and while these are great at allowing live chat analogs of the water cooler, casual conversation can now also be held over message systems that allow for people to communicate without breaking workflow.
So, a series of slack apps are being developed to improve upon traditional water cooler chat taking all of the benefits and adding their own. The principle is similar, strike up a casual conversation, foster teamwork, and collaboration, and provide a mental rest for people working hard on their jobs.
A virtual water cooler, like you can find from CultureBot, replicates the natural engagement of the office space and allows these bonding processes to occur in a virtual environment, inside slack channels.
CultureBot’s virtual water cooler works by starting the conversation for you, based on customized or pre-set messages to the channel you choose. They can be fun or personal, and all you have to do is choose your channel, select your topic and watch the conversation happen.
Obviously, the content of a virtual water cooler can be different from that of a real-world environment, so as well as, or instead of, the question suggestions above, consider working with the new format and make suggestions for conversation starters like:
- Gif wars – share your favorite (SFW) gifs
- What are you having for lunch – post pics of your food
- Quiz time – Post a series of general knowledge or work-based questions
Use these within the virtual water cooler app and you’ll be able to promote all the healthy engagement of the office socializing and more. As a manager, you have a great opportunity to let people see your personality and blur the lines between personal and professional relationships that keep people isolated at work.
Navigating between healthy and destructive workplace socializing might seem like a daunting task, but it should be of some comfort that gossip is far less common around the water cooler than consecutive or recreational chatter.
Even better, most water cooler talk serves multiple purposes that include team bonding, unofficial meetings, mental resets, and comfortable communication, all of which not only boost communication but improve engagements within the workplace.
These perks don’t have to be lost when working with hybrid or remote teams, either. Virtual water coolers come with the same benefits and new ways to interact, including asynchronous communication, which allows everyone to visit the water cooler when it’s most convenient, preventing flow interruptions and maximizing the impact of the social setting for everyone.
Ultimately, a well-managed cooler chat is a great thing to foster in any workplace!