Remote work has complicated effects on employee engagement. While many employees appreciate the extra schedule flexibility, some also feel isolated with fewer opportunities to socialize. Gallup polls from the coronavirus crisis show that during this period, remote workers reported higher overall levels of engagement and well-being, but also an increase in negative emotions like worry, sadness, stress, loneliness, and anxiety.
With remote and hybrid work increasing in popularity, many business leaders find themselves wondering how to create more “water cooler talk” in their remote teams. In an office, people can wander over to a colleague’s desk to talk. On the other hand, in a remote environment, employees may be hesitant to call a spontaneous video conference just to chat.
Fortunately, new types of communication software are making it easier for colleagues to bond with each other while working from home. By making the remote work environment more welcoming and less isolating, leaders can improve employee engagement and retention.
If you haven’t heard the term “water cooler talk”, it’s pretty easy to understand. Just imagine a group of employees gathering around the proverbial water cooler to fill their cups and chat about their weekend.
While actual water coolers have only been around for about a hundred years, the concept of water cooler talk (as in casual conversation) is timeless. And the way employers view water cooler talk is changing. In the past, spending too much time chatting at work may have been seen as a sign of slacking on the job. But today, employers are increasingly conscious of the role team bonding plays in employee engagement.
This conclusion is supported by new research—according to Gallup, isolation can detail productivity by up to 21%. Moreover, social time improves team performance and accounts for more than 50% of improvements in communication patterns, according to research published in the Harvard Business Review. This is true even in highly efficiency-focused environments, such as call centers.
Here are some specific benefits companies can expect to enjoy from water cooler talk:
Company culture is closely tied in with effective communication, including water cooler talk. Grapevine communication and other forms of casual communication keep vital information flowing—did you know that information from just 4% of your employees can end up reaching 70% of your company? Employees appreciate casual team building activities and ice-breakers, too. Successful companies like Uber, Facebook, and Salesforce use team building to create strong cultures that attract the best talent.
The reason most companies focus so much on employee engagement is that it’s closely linked with talent retention. According to Gallup, highly-engaged business units can have up to 59% lower staff turnover. Retention is an important metric, because replacing skilled employees is very expensive. In fields where there’s a talent shortage, it can also be very difficult.
There are many factors to take into account when calculating the cost of employee turnover. Hiring a temporary employee to cover the position, paying for a lengthy recruiting process, and training a new hire can all cost quite a bit, and result in diminished productivity. There’s also the priceless factor of institutional memory—each employee has unique knowledge and makes up a specific part of your company culture, and it can be difficult to replace that.
To give you an approximate idea of the cost of turnover, the Society for Human Resource Management estimates that each employee departure costs about one-third of that employee’s annual salary. That means for a US-based company, the cost of losing a single marketing manager would be approximately $35,672, according to the median annual salary for this job at the time of writing.
Another important effect of water cooler talk is that it opens up channels of communication between managers and employees. This helps create transparency within the company, which is a key part of a healthy corporate culture. Transparency builds trust and helps increase engagement. Research shows that 50% of workers feel their company is being held back by lack of transparency, and 70% say they’re most engaged in their job when senior leadership regularly communicates their strategy.
A lot has been written about the dangers of working in silos. Especially in large organizations, employees may not always know everyone in their department, or even everyone on their team. That distance can stifle collaboration.
Water cooler talk can bring employees together in new and unique ways. Dimitris Tsapis, Head of HR at Coara, shares an anecdote from his company. “We have scheduled each Monday, Thursday, and Friday time slots in the early afternoons to have a virtual space, where anyone can join in and just chat about anything and everything… Our Graphic Designer and Sales Rep met once accidentally in this room, and have now found they have so many things in common that they meet every week on Friday mornings [for] an hour to discuss different topics.”
There’s more to work than just completing rote tasks. Being creative and generating new ideas is also highly important in the knowledge economy. And, although you may feel at your most productive when you’re overly “busy”, studies have shown that’s not the best environment for creativity. Relaxed chats may actually lead to greater innovation than formal meetings or brainstorming sessions.
Nate Tsang, founder and CEO of WallStreetZen, says water cooler talk was actually the catalyst for starting his company. “I remember the conversation started as a general post-weekend catch-up, then turned to talk[ing] about the stock market, then discussion of our frustrations with the software on the market. Lo and behold, nearly three years later, I'm CEO of my own company... Water cooler talks are just the best pulse check for what’s going on in your industry.”
A final benefit of water cooler talk is that it allows employees and management to show their appreciation for a job well done.
Employee recognition has a strong effect on engagement. Seventy percent of employees say recognition at work makes them feel more emotionally connected to their peers. When recognized in the past month, 86% of employees say they trust one another, another 86% trust their boss, and 82% trust senior leadership. And employee recognition can boost business performance, too. Seventy-nine percent of employees say it makes them work harder, and 78% say it makes them more productive.
Since water cooler talk has so many benefits for businesses, how can managers encourage it in a remote environment?
Many remote teams enjoy water cooler talk through their company’s real-time chat software. However, the problem with this is that it doesn’t allow for asynchronous communication. After all, remote work isn’t (and shouldn’t be) exactly like the office. Flexibility and greater productivity are two of the biggest benefits of remote work. Despite all the benefits of water cooler talk, it hardly makes sense to constantly interrupt valuable “focus time” for casual chat.
While remote work has many benefits, its major drawback is its inability to foster the same feeling of community as an office. Water cooler talk, whether or not it takes place near an actual water cooler, is crucial for team bonding. Without casual conversation, businesses miss out on an important tool that can build culture, boost creativity, and increase collaboration.
Many remote organizations have tried to replicate the water cooler or breakroom feeling digitally, often with mixed results. This has proven particularly important during and after the COVID-19 crisis. With the help of specialized software, which is built to facilitate asynchronous communication, creating casual workplace connections online can become more of a reality.