Remote Workers and the Need for a Virtual Water Cooler

When Monday morning rolls aroundindex, employees in traditional office settings will inevitably spend some time chatting about their weekend. This interaction offers a chance to connect with coworkers on a more personal basis. But what about the remote workers who when Monday morning arrives are home alone, with no one to speak to and only an inbox full of impersonal emails to keep them company? For this blog, I spoke with my former colleague, whom we will refer to as Rebeca, about remote work and communication. She has spent the last three years working from her apartment in Johannesburg, South Africa for an organization based in Washington, DC.  She mentioned that the lack of communication and collaboration was by far her least favorite part of her job, leaving her feeling isolated and unmotivated. Research supports the value of casual conversations with coworkers. So how does a remote worker stay connected when they might be separated by thousands of miles and, in the case of Rebeca, a major time zone barrier? One answer is an Enterprise Social Network (ESN), such as Jive, Yammer, Slack, or Chatter.

One of the biggest potential benefits of the ESN is the water cooler (or otherwise-named space) that many of these Web 2.0 platforms share, allowing users to share informal communications, such as their plans for the weekend, thoughts on last night’s award show, or a funny story about their kids or dog. Sure, this space might be used for work-related discussions as well, but it’s often the personal conversations and connections that really matter to remote workers, such as Rebeca.

Rebeca mentioned that a lack of informal communication and connection  with her colleagues was by far the biggest struggle throughout her three years working remotely, especially because she couldn’t call people or message them in real-time since they were in a different time zone. She felt the lack of

 Inman, Mathew. ""Why Working from Home Is Both Awesome and Terrible'" The Oatmeal. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2016.
Inman, Mathew. “”Why Working at Home Is Both Awesome and Terrible‘” The Oatmeal. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2016

group small talk and engagement has had an effect on her overall ability to communicate in groups, even outside of the workplace. Rebeca reflected that “as someone who is typically a people-person and good with groups, working remotely had a major affect on me… it now takes me a while to engage with a group, even in a non-work, social setting. It takes me a couple minutes to learn how to interact with people again. That people-person isn’t even me anymore.” Would an ESN’s water cooler have been equal to the rich communication Rebeca enjoyed when working in a typical office setting? Of course not. But it might have helped her to engage more on a regular basis and helped her to feel less out of the social loop.

In my personal experience working remotely for six months, emails, phone calls, and Skype meetings usually focus solely on business – the latest numbers, projections, etc. – and you miss out on what is going on in your colleagues’ personal lives. This is more important than it might seem. Not only does this lack of casual communication add to the feelings of loneliness and depression common in remote workers, it might actually make you worse at your job because you don’t know what is going on in terms of overarching trends in office culture and you don’t have a chance to get to know any new people except through brief online bios and work emails, which usually don’t leave much room for personality. For instance, Rebeca mentioned that she was initially supervised by a remote manager whom she had never met and her stern and serious tone in emails left her terrified. After they eventually met in person, they completely hit it off. Perhaps if they had the chance to have more informal communications through a virtual water cooler, Rebeca would have more quickly realized how much they had in common and had the opportunity to see the more lighthearted, fun side of her manager that wasn’t evident though professional emails.

I asked Rebeca if a virtual water cooler would have helped her feel more connected at work and she said that while she prefers a face-to-face communication platform whenever possible, such as Google or Skype video, she thinks it would certainly have helped, especially since she could participate in discussions a few hours later, when her colleagues were asleep, and her input would still be relevant. She said it would also help her connect with colleagues that she wouldn’t otherwise have interacted with and she would have gotten to see another, more playful side to their personalities.

With remote workers on the rise (increasing 79% from 2005 to 2012), organizations need to invest in ways to ensure all of their employees feel connected. While it may not be equal to grabbing a cup of coffee with your colleague in the break room and discussing that weekend’s football game, ESN water coolers offer a viable alternative. Maybe they are even better than the real-world water cooler, because if you hate football (like me), you can just skip that post and wait for the good one with the cat videos.



4 thoughts on “Remote Workers and the Need for a Virtual Water Cooler”

  1. Thyra, your blog post emotionally resonated with me. When I’m not traveling, I work from home and for someone who is very high on the preference for extroversion, I find it extremely difficult (depressing to some degree) working from home without the “watercooler” discussions in a typical office environment. I work on a virtual team where half of us are working remotely when not traveling and the others are based out of Houston. At our last quarterly meeting we brought up this point of how several of us remote colleagues feel very disconnected to the organization, what’s going on in the business, etc. Our manager has now kicked off weekly team meetings, but we still feel like something is missing. We are getting the formal organizational news and important announcements, but we are missing the informal connection, the humor, and banter that makes us a cohesive, fun, collaborative team. Amy Edmondson is a Harvard researcher who has done a lot of work on teams and I remember she stating in her book Teaming the importance of virtual team members meeting first initially in person to build trust and rapport to later have productivity and performance. I agree that ESNs are a viable alternative to team collaboration and informal conversation after having first met in person, and similar to a theme in Laura Pepper’s first blog, I think there is value in leadership (ie. the leaders of the teams) to be active members, participants and online collaborators in whatever ESN platform the team chooses.

  2. I have worked remotely and in person. No question being remote is lonely and the challenge is that the meetings are typically all business. It takes a conscious effort to ensure to have the chit-chat before a meeting or one on one with colleagues. I am not convinced ESNs are the place to have this…due to their public nature. There is the water cooler, then there is the PA announcement system. I am not sure I want to share the details of my weekend with everyone. Not to be a contrarian, but I am not sure an ESN is the right tool for this type of social interaction. I think ESNs and Communication technologies such as LYNC are potentially a better marriage for this. The interactions need to be:

    1. Personalized
    2. private with one or more
    3. video enabled
    4. Real time. Typically when I want to chat, I want to chat. Not something I necessarily want to post and wait.
    5. There is some value that a community brings such as grouping of people and topics. However, its the real time nature that I am not convinced ESNs can handle.

  3. I too have experience working remotely/on a virtual team. I don’t know if an ESN would have been beneficial to me for the similar reasons to Lynne. A different technique to consider is dedicating time at the beginning of each call to talking about something non-business related. It’s be equivalent to the “ice breakers” or a “so how was your morning/night” questions that people often do when they don’t know each other. I find the 5 minutes (Take 5: before a meeting when we’re still waiting for someone usually is the most fun/trust-building portion of virtual meetings.

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