Want to Be Innovative? You Need a Water Cooler

By: Michael McQueen

In an age dominated by constant, tech-powered connection, it would seem that the last thing we need more of is more time spent together – especially at work, and especially in person.

Having spent the first two years of the decade rapidly adjusting to remote work and adopting the tech solutions that made this possible, dragging ourselves back into cities and workplaces can feel like time and energy wasted.

The stats reflect this feeling, with over 60% of workers looking for flexibility in their working arrangements,[1] and 60% of firms offering hybrid work.[2] While remote and hybrid solutions are appealing in terms of convenience and cost-cutting, the impacts on collaboration – and thus our innovation – are less thrilling.

The Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern points out, “While remote work has many advantages, building trust between employees isn’t one of them. Online, there is no water cooler, no nearby coffee shop for informal brainstorms, no place to grab a drink after work.”[3]

Apple CEO Tim Cook has long been a proponent of the value of proximity when it comes to healthy and innovative teams. “Innovation isn’t always a planned activity,” he suggests. “It’s bumping into each other over the course of the day and advancing an idea you just had.” JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon agrees, saying that working from home “doesn’t work for spontaneous idea generation.”[4]

Look at the Data

Data is increasingly validating views like these. Probably the most thorough research examining the impact of remote work on collaboration throughout the pandemic was released by Microsoft in September 2021. Having monitored the communication patterns across 61,000 employees worldwide, Microsoft’s peer-reviewed study found that remote work had hurt cross-functional communication and collaboration in a way that would threaten innovation in the long-term. Remote and hybrid work was also causing employees to rely on “asynchronous communication methods,” such as email and instant messages, and that this makes it very difficult to “convey and process complex information.”

The researchers suggest that these finding are “a warning sign” to other companies. “Without intervention, the effects we discovered have the potential to impact workers’ ability to acquire and share new information across groups, and as a result, affect productivity and innovation,” they wrote. “In light of these findings, companies should be thoughtful about if and how they choose to adopt long-term work-from-home policies.”[5]

Findings like these validate a noteworthy 2017 study by Matthew Claudel at MIT which found clear evidence of the positive relationship between proximity and collaboration. This is not to say that collaboration can’t be done within a dispersed and remote team but there are real benefits to people being in the same physical location and the cross-pollinating of ideas that naturally follows.[6]

Big Ideas Are Birthed  In PersonBoardroom meeting

One way in which this manifests is in incidental conversations that organically occur in the ordinary moments of workplaces. Ironically, it is clear that many of the world’s biggest ideas and most significant social connections are born out of our smallest talk.

One study examining the social and emotional value of small talk tracked a range of employees for 15 consecutive workdays in a pre-pandemic era. The researchers asked participants how much small talk they made at work each day and about their positive emotions such friendliness, pride, and gratitude. Each night they were also asked to report their levels of well-being and prosocial behaviors.

The results of this study were informative and inspiring. They revealed that on days when workers made more small talk than usual, they experienced more positive emotions, were less burned out and were also more willing to go out of their way to help their colleagues.[7]

Numerous organisations have experimented with creative ways to orchestrate informal virtual interactions among employees. Platforms like Airmeet and apps like Water Cooler allow employees to engage in a form of online speed networking with colleagues. In much the same way, Culture Amp has created a channel on messaging system Slack called ‘donut’ where employees are randomly paired with someone else in the organisation every two weeks.[8]

This type of ‘video-chat roulette’ technology has shown great promise in allowing employees to digitally make the sort of random connections they otherwise would in an office. The UK Civil Service began using video-chat roulette technology developed by a company named Spark during Britain’s first lockdown.

The goal was to foster a sense of cohesion amongst team members who may have otherwise felt isolated and disconnected. In the first year of using the system, over 3,000 participants were randomly paired up for a 30-minute video chat with a colleague once per month. The program was dubbed ‘Coffee Connect’ and resulted in 15,000 connections being made. 90% of participants reported that they found the experience extremely valuable in getting to know people from other departments and areas in the organization.[9]

It is undeniable that face-to-face interactions and physical proximity can have significant effects on the collaboration and cohesion within a workplace. However, whether facilitated physically or remotely the value of synchronous communication, incidental conversations and small talk is unrivalled in its ability to generate the ideas that count.

[1] Renton, S 2021, ‘The future of work will be hybrid’, Mcrindle.

[2] Leaver, S. 2021, ‘Predictions 2022: This Is A Year To Be Bold,’ Forrester, 26 October.

[3]  Stern, J. 2021, ‘Tech That Will Change Your Life in 2021’, The Wall Street Journal, 1 January.

[4]  Cain Miller, C. 2021, ‘Does being in the office boost innovation? There’s no evidence of it,’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 25 June.

[5]  Bishop, T. 2021, ‘Microsoft study shows how remote work puts productivity and innovation at risk,’ Geekwire, 9 September.

[6]  2020, ‘Covid-19 has forced a radical shift in working habits’, The Economist, 10 September

[7]  Methot, J. 2021, ‘Remote workers need small talk, too’ Harvard Business Review, 25 March.

[8]  Waters, C. 2021, ‘Doughnut meetings and choosing your office days,’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 July.

[9]  Russell, A. 2021, ‘Virtual coffees, real connections with real people,’ Uk Civil Service Blog, 3 June.

Article supplied with thanks to Michael McQueen.

About the Author: Michael is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

Feature image: Photo by Mad Fish Digital on Unsplash 

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