Photo of a group of people at work gathered around a water cooler

The importance of the water cooler

Mel Fairley 11th November 2020

Are you missing the office water cooler chat?  The five or ten minutes spent swapping stories with your colleagues about what’s happening in your family or chatting about the latest drama on reality TV?  If you are then you are not alone.

One of the challenges many of us have faced in recent months has been adjusting to working in the home environment, away from colleagues and friends.  Zoom is no substitute for being in the office and some of us find ourselves missing our colleagues, surprisingly even some of the annoying ones! If we consider that full time employees can spend up to 40 hours a week in the workplace, it should come as no surprise that we miss those connections.  Some of us might have a work “spouse” or “partner”, our go to person when we need to offload or vent. Or we may have a group of colleagues who meet regularly for lunch. The absence of the physical presence of those working relationships can leave a significant void in how we feel about work.

When we interact in person, we feel connected to one another and part of something bigger than the transactional aspects of our role. In those ten-minute chats whilst making a coffee, we see the sparks of insight into the context and lives of our colleagues.  We build an understanding – a colleague telling us about being up all night with a poorly 3-year-old is actually telling us they might not have the energy for a long day of meetings.  So, we cancel the one we had scheduled with them to give them a bit of space in their day.  We see the smile and positive impact of the two-minute chat with the receptionist about how his son’s football team is getting on that brings feelings of belonging and happiness at being part of a bigger team. 

That social connection is what makes us human and helps us build relationships with our colleagues based on interest, understanding and care. Maintaining that connection without the physical presence is proving challenging.  Working with different organisations recently on the subject of resilience, the question of how to maintain relationships in the virtual world was regularly discussed.

So, what can we do about it?  Zoom fatigue is real.  We simply cannot substitute those impromptu chats with a pre-planned Zoom catch up, no matter how informal we think it will be. Here are my top 5 tips for staying connected:

  1. Identify what it is you are missing.  Is it the lunch break chat with your colleagues or is it the ability to bounce an idea off someone quickly?  Are you missing the colleague who supports the same sporting team as you or the person who has been in your organisation a long time who can tell you all you need to know about what’s gone before?
  2. Once you have identified what you are missing most speak up.  It is highly likely that others will be missing the same but how would you know unless you talk about it? Reach out and be explicit about what would help you feel connected.
  3. Make an old-fashioned phone call!  Arrange a time to call and connect with someone.  Agree that you will talk about anything other than work and stick to it.
  4. Re-create your lunch group with a What’s App group that you can dip in and out of when you want to.  Pose a trivia question on there, or a topic or joke of the day.
  5. Any form of social isolation impacts our health and wellbeing over time so do not wait until you feel upset and anxious, reach out and you will soon find others willing to try new ways to connect.

And another thing….

As if that wasn’t enough.  Those water cooler chats have another important function.  They offer us a natural pause in our working day.  A chance to stop thinking about the problem or spreadsheet in front of us even for a short period of time.  Our attention has a limited capacity and when we overload it with three hour Zoom meetings or endless hours in front of a laptop screen, we impact our levels of effectiveness.  Our brains are not built like a computer, they simply cannot maintain high function and output at a steady level all day every day.

So those chats are our pause button.  We may share a joke, we may tell stories, we may simply enjoy listening to others but whilst we are doing that, we are giving our brains a well-earned rest.  We are giving them a chance to work a little less hard and re-charge before we re-set and go again. So, here are some additional tips on other ways to build in that pause:

  1. Do not accept or plan, back to back meetings with no break in between.  Ideally schedule a ten-minute gap for the inevitable over-run of the first meeting and a further ten-minute gap to pause and reflect, take a comfort break, make a cup of tea, and then get ready for the next meeting.
  2. Set an alarm on your phone.  If you have no meetings scheduled and you want to ensure you lift your head from the laptop, use your phone alarm to remind you every 90 minutes or so to get up. Walk around the house or the garden for 5 minutes, trust me your brain and your back will thank you for it.
  3. Take a lunch.  It is so easy not to, especially when we are at home and the kitchen may only be a few steps away from where we are working.  The temptation to eat whilst working under the guise of productivity is alluring.  Close the lid of the laptop and go eat lunch in another room if you can.  Chat to those you share the house with, catch a bit of lunchtime TV or walk the dog. Put simply, stop working for a while. 
  4. And finally, remember the primary function of the water cooler – be sure to stay hydrated by getting up and having regular water breaks throughout your day.