How to Create a virtual “Water Cooler” in your workspace
There are 3 types of people.
- Those who view remote work as a beautiful rarity and mystery.
- Those who investigated remote work and believe it to be full of difficulty.
- Those who live remote work, and know how liberating it is.
Regardless of which you are, it’s not difficult to see several things are organically missing from remote work. One is the welcomed distraction. There’s no fortuitous crossing of paths, overhearing of conversations, and generally “Water Cooler” chat.
Offices, organically invite distraction from concentrated singular tasks… and sometimes that’s a good thing.
Is this really a thing?
Clarifying the issue brings it to light. Cubicles, headphones, and closed-door offices help people control their days in a commuting job. Remote work is like all those things ground up and infused with rocket-fuel. Once someone hits a stride with remote work, her distractions have all been eliminated, and this creates the new problem.
I’ve heard people call it “Cabin Fever”, but that’s not accurate enough. No, this is better named “Quarantine Fever”. Where isolation and dedication are secretly taxing remote workers from their social chemicals. These depletions are hard to identify, and usually manifest in some secondary symptom that leaves people with a palpable but inarticulate sting.
According to famed public speaker, Simon Sinek, positive social chemicals like Oxytocin help stave off addictive and selfish habits fueled by chemicals like Dopamine. In the lack of social chemicals, Dopamine addiction is more likely. It’s hard to imagine the effects of solitary confinement, but study after study shows how even the most introvert of us is still a social being.
With this knowledge, we need to be deliberate in energizing our remote work environment in a way that is productive and socially satisfying.
The “Water cooler” for Remote Work
The first step is the same for everyone. The other steps depend on your team and your path.
Put kindness, humanity, and friendliness at the core of your remote work environment. Only 10% of it gets through, so you need to go above and beyond.
Digital interaction is low bandwidth. As a human being, we are programmed to read a person’s eyes, twitches, coloration changes, voice inflection, and hundreds of other interpersonal indicators. When you type a message of pure fact, the human on the other side gets exactly ZERO social context. It’s our job to center humanity in remote work. Some of the most successful remote workers I’ve met overflow with personality, and they do so as an effort of will. Cover your communication in context, emoji, and above all, clarity. Even over the phone, a person can hear a smile, what’s your digital smile?
People often feel that if they are too nice, they can’t be a boss, manager, or authority figure. That’s not true in remote work, because it’s easy to be strict and direct. But if all you ever have is cold communication, how would anyone know you mean business? The range in communication gives you this bandwidth. Otherwise, you’re actually just monotone… all the time.
So step one is to break that inflexibility. Your communication needs Yin and Yang, so be nice, blameless, and friendly at the core of everything you and your team do.
Create events that fit your team. A “water cooler” is just an excuse for those who might be needing that interaction. We can make something better by putting ideas out there. A coworker might just say “sure”, but somewhere deep inside they are feeding their social need.
Since you’ve done Step 1, it’s just a matter of finding people willing to lead and innovate these novel ideas. We’re always looking for new ways to interact, but here are some great ones we do at Infinite Red.
- Book club
- Movie Night (using Netflix and NetflixParty.com)
- Webcam Quiplash
- Q&A Hour
- Webcam hangout room — (Kitchen Table)
- Secret Santa — Video unveiling
- Coworking space/activities — for those who want a little office structure
- Lunch and learn video presentations
- Lunchtime online games
- Bulletin Board —An open life-updates/highlights session in our official company meeting
We’d love to have even more. Each of these is optional. There’s no mandatory fun, or forced socialization because everyone is different. With a good spread of options, there’s little chance that someone is lacking their “water cooler” opportunity.
Do you have some you’d like to share? Add them to the comments. I’d love to hear what exciting things your company does to keep humanity centered in a remote culture.
Gant Laborde is Chief Technology Strategist at Infinite Red, a published author, adjunct professor, worldwide public speaker, and mad scientist in training. Clap/follow/tweet or visit him at a conference.
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