Replacing the Water Cooler

Evan Teague
6 min readFeb 1, 2021

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Why the Water Cooler is important

Remember in all those TV shows where people at work took breaks throughout day and talked by the Water Cooler? Or maybe those examples are too old for the kidz, and it’s been replaced with hipper and fancier things like playing video games during lunch or walking to the kitchen to pour some slow drip coffee and talking about the latest TikTok.

What’s important about these moments?

The first is that they provide mental breaks throughout the work day. Have you ever been working on a hard problem and just can’t figure it out? And then you step away for a minute and come back, only to find that the answer was there right in front of you the whole time. There’s a mental reset that happens.

The second reason has to do with influencing your colleagues. Isn’t it always awkward to ask someone to do something if you don’t know them? Like, who are you to ask them to do this task, what authority do you have over them? And vice versa, who are you to ask for my help? Why should I help you? But what happens if you ask a friend to do something? They generally will do it because you like each other. The same is true at work. You’re more likely to get along and influence your colleagues if you have an established relationship.

The final, and potentially most important reason, is the social interaction you get. Humans are made to be social (and this is coming from an introvert). We are at our best when we’re together. To back up this assertion, here’s an article, because we all know that any good idea is backed up by something we found on the Internet.

We now live in a remote-first world

The pandemic caused by COVID-19 has shifted many tech companies to a remote-first work culture. What does this mean? It means no more (or significantly reduced) offices. You work from home, using tools like Zoom and Slack to interact with each other.

With the switch to a remote-first work culture, I hear some common things from people:

  • “Because I’m at home, I end up working more since I don’t have to commute”
  • “Because I’m at home, I end up taking fewer breaks”
  • “I really miss the social interaction of the office”

I fear the negative consequences of the underlying feelings behind these statements. People will miss out on getting to know their colleagues outside of “hey, can you show me how to write this code” or “here’s that TPS report.” Also, people will work longer hours and feel more isolated. This dives into mental health territory, which is something that I’m not equipped to say anything more about other than “that’s not good.”

A “remote” Water Cooler

In a remote-first world, no office means no Water Cooler. I believe that we need to replicate it. How, you may ask? Well, I have some practical suggestions that you can start taking today (yes, right this moment)!

Schedule a recurring 1–1: Yes, I’m suggesting scheduling a 30m-60min Zoom meeting with someone you consider a friend or with someone you’d like to get to know. Talk about sports. Dating. Gardening. Movies. How sick that last party was bro? (oh wait, we’re in a pandemic, maybe not that one). Just don’t talk about work.

  • I personally do this and have heard from others that they also do this! Once you get past the initial awkwardness, it becomes really awesome.
  • You may find that you just don’t like the person. You have nothing against them from a work standpoint, but that they may just not click with you from a personal standpoint. That’s ok! You aren’t always best friends with everyone, but just like outside of work, you have to risk a few awkward hangouts to find your bestie.

Schedule a recurring 3/4/5 person hangout

  • Same idea as a recurring 1–1.

Form interest groups: Say you know a few people who like to read. Maybe form a book club that meets after hours once every two weeks. Or if you like video games, schedule a Call of Duty session every weekend. You can even use Slack to communicate and set up private channels

  • Make sure to be inclusive! If Bob wants to play Call of Duty with your group, let him! However, don’t feel as if you have to mass email invite everyone in your whole organization to your group. Let it grow organically just as real friendships would.

Be the team DJ: Create an Apple Music or Spotify playlist each week for your team. Send it out!

Show and tell: As part of a team bonding activity day, I once made a slideshow talking about who I was as a person outside of work. We all showed our interests, hobbies, loved ones, and even fears/anxieties. We came to understand each other as people first and colleagues second.

Bi-Weekly team events: Schedule an event where the focus is just to hang with your team. Some activity ideas:

  • Among Us (iPhone/Android game)
  • Pick a TV show and ask everyone to watch an episode. Some great examples in early 2020 were Tiger King and Love is Blind.
  • JackBox party pack (PC)

Happy Hour: Grab a drink and Zoom

No small talk events: I can’t take credit for this one, but a group at my work called WIT (Women in Technology) hosted this event. Basically, to help people get to know each other, you create a list of icebreaker questions and divide people up into Zoom breakout rooms. They talk about the questions and most likely the conversation will shift into something else (but make sure it’s not the weather!). The point is to get to know those around you and see if you want to invite anyone to further hangouts (*cough* 1–1 hangouts *cough*)

Some key things to remember

  • Not everyone socializes the same way. Some are introverts, some are extroverts. Some are ok with socializing virtually, some need to be in person. Don’t force it if it won’t work for you/them.
  • Keep in mind the size of your event. From the least scientific survey ever conducted (and by that I mean asking my colleagues their thoughts before writing this article), I found that it’s best to keep it between 3–5 people. The reason being is that anymore than 5 and it becomes hard to get a word in. Anything less than 3 (unless you’re intentionally trying to have a 1–1) could result in some awkwardness. 3 people means that most likely at least someone will have something to say.
  • Just think about how your friendships outside of the office developed. It wasn’t immediate, you had some duds, but eventually, you found someone you liked and exchanged phone numbers. You started grabbing a drink or sitting next to each other in class. You got dinner a few times. Then you started to go to each others’s houses. Next thing you knew, you had formed a squad and were hanging all the time. The same thing applies to the work environment. It won’t happen immediately, but it can and will.
  • You may feel guilty scheduling time to socialize in non-work related ways at work, especially if it’s during work hours. You may feel guilty even just taking breaks because you’re always supposed to be online and available. Well, the only difference between the old, in person form of socializing around the Water Cooler and doing it in a remote-first world is that the former seems “accidental” whereas the latter seems “intentional.” But if you take a moment to think about it, is there really any difference? You’re still socializing, you’re still talking about non-work related things, you’re still taking the same amount of time. So stop feeling guilty.

To wrap up, keep in mind that working at work is why we’re at work (say that 5 times fast). But remember, when we were all in the office, we all took time out of our day to socialize around the metaphorical Water Cooler, so why can’t we do the same when remote?

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