Isolation: Drinking alone at the water cooler

The “water cooler” is shorthand for the tiny social interactions that happen spontaneously in offices. It comes from the tradition of people chatting and hanging out around a physical water cooler but has grown to include many types of experiences.

When working from home, there are no spontaneous opportunities for connection. Studios are seeking ways to reconnect their teams, experimenting with morning tea, randomly-matched coffee hangs, and game nights.

When trying to replace in-person connective spaces online, it’s useful to explore a few different categories:

  1. Tiny “water cooler” interactions while filling a water bottle, pouring coffee, or microwaving lunch.
  2. Spontaneous connections like going for a coffee or eating lunch with a team member.
  3. Semi-organized optional events like Taco Tuesdays or game nights.
  4. Formally organized gatherings like team-building events or online escape rooms.

Why water cooler interactions are critical

Spontaneous conversations and tiny, frequent interactions help coworkers feel connected to each other. We ask a lot of each other at work and these relationships are underpinned by a thick buffer of connection, trust, and goodwill. Without casual interactions, there is a decrease in team cohesiveness and morale. This has a drastic effect on how people feel and work together.

5 reasons it’s challenging to reproduce water cooler spaces online

  1. You can’t bump into someone online. Water cooler interactions are often accidental or spontaneous. Online interactions are rarely accidental or serendipitous.
  2. Online replacements for social spaces can feel clunky and heavy-handed. Eating lunch in a scheduled video meeting is not a fair replacement for casually eating lunch with a colleague in a park.
  3. Online video calls can feel sterile and interchangeable. Each video call is identical to the last. The last thing many people want to do after a week of video calls is to have a Zoom happy hour.
  4. There is intense pressure to extract value from everything online. For some people, “fun” team-building events are harder work than regular work.
  5. Scheduling is complicated. It’s challenging to work with a variety of schedules, as well as to budget for extra events inside already tight timelines.

Tactics studios have tried

  • Game nights and movie nights
  • Morning video calls with coffee
  • Random coffee pairings for casual conversations
  • Weekly hangouts (unstructured video calls)
  • Video calls with personal trivia
  • Video calls for co-learning presentations
  • Slack or Discord channels for casual conversation
  • Tea parties with cookies
  • Lunch with coworkers
  • Pizza delivery
  • Drinks and snacks
  • Socially distanced hikes with masks

Creating space for online social interactions remains an open problem. Studios are curious and actively seeking new solutions.

Created by Marie Claire LeBlanc Flanagan from GAIN and funded by Ontario Creates and the CMF, Isolation Nation tackles the tough pandemic-related problems like motivation and communication, as well as continuing challenges like market discoverability and work-life balance.

Download the full free 32 page resource here.