How to Connect with Your Coworkers in WFH Setups
In the traditional office set-up, water cooler conversations were perfect opportunities for casual bonding. This expression arose as a result of people taking a break from work, meeting their colleagues by the water cooler in the pantry, and having casual exchanges about non-work-related topics. It created the opportunity for employees to interact and connect with each other on a more personal level.
But the pandemic has disrupted this dynamic. Work from home jobs are now the norm as companies move toward a more remote setup. While this offers the advantages of an improved work-life balance and saving money by not commuting, it has also created some organizational challenges, such as how employees interact with their coworkers. This can create a feeling of isolation and a lack of camaraderie among colleagues.
Creating a Virtual Water Cooler
There is no serendipity in remote teams. The WFH setup prevents casual conversations, as there is no chance of you meeting accidentally in the break room or bumping into one another in the hallway. Every interaction has to be intentional: you need to actively reach out to another person, whether it’s for something you need or just to say hello.
This can create weird situations when you simply want to be friendly. For example, while saying “good morning” to a teammate would be perfectly natural in a physical office, doing so via direct message would seem awkward, especially with no context or follow-up conversation.
Thankfully, there are ways to build a “virtual water cooler” so that you can have the same kind of interaction with your coworkers as you would in a physical office, even as you work from home. Here are some ideas that you can explore with your team:
Speak with Management about Group Chats
Ask management about creating a virtual water cooler group chat. It may be necessary to explain how it can create opportunities for developing camaraderie and making group members feel valued. Share how you plan to encourage participation as well as measures that may be put into effect to ensure everyone’s enjoyment and safety.
There is still an ongoing misconception that water cooler chats are unproductive. Some business owners even label the exchanges as “gossip” when nothing could be further from the truth. While these conversations are inherently casual, they provide opportunities for everyone to unload themselves from the everyday stresses of work. It can be difficult to be productive all the time, so having a relaxing conversation can be the mental break you need.
Set Up a Dedicated Space
Once you get the go-ahead from your higher-ups, set up a dedicated space either in your company’s preferred chat platform or in another messaging app and give your colleagues access to it. Make it clear that this channel will only be for informal conversations and limited to workplace-friendly topics. For example, you can send “Question of the Week” or “Bright Spot Friday” prompts on this channel to encourage people to start chatting. Make sure to keep things lighthearted and non-judgmental. The goal is for everyone to have random conversations with each other so that everyone on your team feels more connected.
Try Fun Video Calls
Aside from the chat group, you can also ask your managers if you can set up a mini teambuilding session once a week. For example, perhaps you can have a one-hour slot every Friday to play an online game with each other. A great suggestion would be to ask a question that everyone will take turns answering.
If management is hesitant about giving its employees a one-hour break, suggest having scheduled virtual coffee breaks instead. These would be like a team-building session, but they would only last for 10 to 15 minutes—just as long as a normal water cooler break would be. Though these interactions may be short and limited, they allow you to build a stronger connection with your coworkers and see them outside of their work selves.
Connect Using a Multichannel Approach
In most cases, interactions with coworkers are done through email. While a convenient messaging option, emails can feel formal and impersonal. So a great way to connect with your coworkers is to use a multichannel approach.
Speak with them through video or chat and capitalize on any opportunity for small talk. If you’re in a managerial position, it’s a good idea to reach out to new employees. You can keep it simple and just say that you’re available if they need help. This small gesture of kindness can make you feel more connected with your coworkers.
Alternatively, if you’re a new employee, take the time to regularly check in with your managers to ask for any feedback regarding your work. Most managers will appreciate the effort and feel more willing to engage in casual conversations with you.
It’s a good idea to create a feeling of serendipity and open communication with the people you work with, even if you’re confined to virtual spaces. Working from home does not mean that you no longer have to interact with anyone at all. While physically meeting at the water cooler may be a thing of the past now, you can take the steps necessary to ensure that virtual water coolers keep you and your coworkers connected no matter where you are in the world.
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