Workplace socializing 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.
As such, 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!
The Surprising Benefits of Water Cooler Chat
Traditionally, almost stereotypically, managers fear the water cooler conversations that go on during working hours. As a sign of procrastination, makes the cautious manager feel like think they’re not getting their money’s worth out of their staff, or gives the impression that people aren’t interested in the work. Commonly, this type of unofficial break is discouraged, even penalized.
However, it’s been well established for a long time that taking social breaks actually improves productivity, and helps relieve a lot of the workplace stressors that hinder people at their work.
Harvard business school report that social time at work can improve the performance of teams and boost improvements 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.
It Improves retention
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.
It bridges 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.
It can be an 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.
Boosts to Teamwork
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 promotes 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
Being privy to the goings on around the water cooler allows management access to plenty of valuable employee feedback. It’s also a great way to cover a lot of what’s going on in your industry in general. Following the rumors and the hearsay around the water cooler is one way to keep your finger on the pulse of what’s going on around you.
However, not all chatter is productive, and there’s still a need to keep an eye out for detrimental topics, behaviors, and simple procrastination to avoid the very cliché we’re trying to bust in this article! One major thing to put a stop to is gossip.
The Dangers of Office Gossip
Gossip comes with many associations, whether rumors, lies, or light-hearted banter behind someone’s back, it all essentially means discussing someone else, while outside of their presence. As such, regardless of the definition, gossip has tremendous potential to be destructive and can escalate to harmful proportions, both to individuals and the work as a whole.
Whether its intent is malicious or innocuous, there are many who think that there is no healthy style of gossip, and some who would go as far as to say it is an act of hostility; an indefensible attack on another person.
Some managers include in their definition of gossip staff members who are always complaining about their peers without offering any solutions or confronting them in person.
Others think that gossip can be an act of social bonding; a sign of camaraderie between team members. This is, with the exception of gossip that affects morale or hurts someone. Essentially, whether gossip is good or bad depends on your specific definition, but there are certainly times when gossip can be bad, and that’s the definition we’re going to go with here.
Some of the specific dangers of gossip could relate to power dynamics within the workplace and facilitate bad relationships, or even be considered a form of bullying. Without proper management, bad gossip can:
- Lower morale
- Damage trust
- Reduce productivity
- Increase anxiety
- Divide teams
- Reduce retention
Essentially, bad gossip has the opposite effect on people that constructive socializing does. It pushes people apart, creates negative associations at work, and promotes bad attitudes and stress. Of course, all of these impacts will affect engagement and retention, as well as negatively impact productivity.
So, where’s the line between healthy water cooler talk and office gossip? And how do you navigate between the two?
Healthier Water Cooler Topics
One of the most proactive ways to address bad gossip is to get in first with some topics of conversation. Knowing what’s okay and what isn’t is part of the game, so here are some acceptable topics to lead with.
- 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 these acceptable water cooler questions.
Try Some Water Cooler Questions
As conversation starters, there are plenty of options that stay well within the code of conduct. Most of these you can modify to suit your situation or use as inspiration for more.
Remember, make use of engagement and unofficial channels where possible to bridge that gap of communication between workers and their managers. This is one of the most powerful tools you have in relation to water cooler talk.
- How’s your violin practice going?
- How was the holiday?
- Have you thought about applying for that new opening?
- I’m having a little trouble with these reports, could I get a look at your stats?
- Would you rather have X-ray vision or be able to fly?
- What are five things you couldn’t live without?
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!