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What Is A Virtual Water Cooler? Benefits, Tools, and Ideas

A virtual water cooler is a virtual space where remote employees have casual conversations and connect. Discover how they can help your remote team.

Stefana Zaric
Written by Stefana Zaric
May 10, 2022
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Key Takeaways

  1. Remote and hybrid companies that want to improve company culture, employee engagement, and retention must find ways to foster relationships between coworkers online.
  2. Virtual water coolers allow employees to socialize, build stronger interpersonal relationships, and take breaks throughout the workday.
  3. Help your team connect and forge stronger relationships with Connections by Deel.

In 2020, 69% of workers felt disconnected from their virtual teammates, and 73% said they missed social interactions with their colleagues during lunch breaks or water cooler chats between tasks.

While the pandemic undoubtedly exacerbated the feelings of disconnection, disengagement and loneliness are modern work issues that companies must proactively address.

Companies that want to create attractive remote work environments (and improve employee retention) must find ways to foster relationships between coworkers online. This guide will explain how virtual water coolers simulate casual, face-to-face interactions and contribute to much-needed team bonding.

What do water cooler activities look like?

In a physical office, water cooler interactions usually happen in break rooms or kitchens, around an office water cooler, coffee machine, or box of donuts. At larger companies, water cooler chats are some of the only opportunities for employees from different teams to socialize.

In a virtual office environment, these activities take place over casual video calls during an employee’s lunch or coffee break. Some companies use apps to randomly pair employees for virtual water coolers, contributing to company-wide bonding.

3 significant benefits of virtual water coolers

Companies worldwide turn to virtual water coolers because of the positive impact of casual conversation on remote teams. Building and maintaining engagement should be a priority for all employees, but it becomes essential in remote environments. Here are three significant benefits that come with the adoption of a virtual water cooler.

1. Virtual water coolers build a sense of camaraderie

Building trust and camaraderie in virtual teams can be challenging because of the lack of casual in-person interactions. Teams will often only interact to discuss issues strictly related to work. Virtual water coolers bring teams closer together and increase trust between team members.

During water cooler conversations, employees can focus on other topics, discussing their interests and passions. They may even share stories and challenges from their personal lives and look for support from their team members. This kind of personal bonding forms workplace friendships. These friendships can significantly boost employee satisfaction and retention: 57% of people confirm that having a best friend at work makes work more enjoyable.

2. Virtual water coolers help employees stay productive

Water cooler conversations and activities are a break from work. These small breaks improve employee focus, stamina, and productivity throughout the day and support employee wellbeing.

Sitting at your desk for long hours can strain your body and brain. And when you’re not in the office, you probably don’t get up as much, as a Slack message easily substitutes a stroll to a colleague’s desk. That stillness can increase fatigue and lack of concentration and hurt your productivity.

A five-minute microbreak enhances focus, innovation, and energy levels. You could chat with a colleague, stretch your legs, take a glass of water, pet your cat or dog, or text a friend. This downtime is essential for your brain to regain its creativity.

Companies promote these microbreaks by encouraging teams to have virtual water cooler conversations. Even non-work conversations can impact productivity. Chatting about personal matters may create cross-team bonds, improve teamwork, or even prompt employees to set up a brainstorming session to find new ways to work together or discuss an idea that popped up during a casual conversation.

3. Virtual water coolers enhance employee happiness and retention

Employees who can build meaningful relationships at work are happier and stick around at their company longer. Studies confirm that interaction with coworkers is critical in employee engagement and happiness. Work happiness matters to employees, sometimes even more than salary.

Companies with happy employees experience lower absenteeism rates and higher employee retention rates. And since an employee’s mood impacts how they interact with customers and colleagues, you may see a positive trend in customer retention and even higher company profitability

A Gallup study also found that companies could experience fewer workplace incidents and more satisfied customers when employees nurture friendships and feel engaged at work.

How to set up a virtual water cooler

You can introduce virtual water cooler activities in a few ways. Here are the four main steps to implement your first virtual water cooler.

1. Choose between 1:1 and group water coolers (or both!) 

Companies can prioritize individual connections or group bonds by implementing either 1:1 or group team water coolers.

1:1 water cooler

1-on-1 water cooler chats refer to only two people having a conversation. Some companies randomly pair employees across teams, which leads to interactions that may never otherwise happen. A brand new hire might get the opportunity to speak to the CEO, and someone on the marketing team might learn about an engineer’s day-to-day life.

This is an excellent option for larger companies where people from different teams may never cross paths.

Group water cooler

Team water coolers allow multiple people to get together and chat, like a casual virtual social event. That can happen in virtual breakrooms, virtual happy hours after work, or interest-based virtual clubs.

In virtual group water cooler chats based on interests, people talk about something they have in common, like favorite Netflix shows or painting as a hobby. 

Group chats are also an excellent opportunity to organize fun team activities. From trivia games to quick icebreaker questions that can help employees learn exciting facts about their coworkers, options are plentiful.

2. Choose a suitable channel, tool, or platform

Some companies encourage employees to organize virtual water coolers whenever they please. Other companies may use tools to facilitate. Either way, here’s some handy tech to start your water cooler conversations: 

Slack water coolers

You can set up a Slack channel as an asynchronous water cooler environment. Employees can share memes and news or create themed channels to discuss specific topics like movies, sports, travel, or music.

You can also add a plugin like Connections by Deel to your Slack workspace. This plugin pairs people at a regular cadence—weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly—and integrates with Google Calendar to suggest a few time slots during which both employees are free. Employees can schedule a virtual meeting or chat without ever leaving Slack.

Video water coolers 

If you want an alternative to Slack, you can use a simple video conferencing tool (Zoom, Microsoft Teams) to hold water cooler sessions. 

Specialized water cooler tools

Looking for a tool specifically created for virtual water coolers. Check these out: 

  • Mural is a digital whiteboard with plenty of cool features, such as sticky notes, connectors for building diagrams and drawing options 
  • Water Cooler Trivia is a platform that automatically creates and schedules trivia asynchronously and automatically every week
  • Sococo is a platform that imitates a physical office environment by representing it on a map where you can see your coworkers’ avatars and find someone on a break and available to chat 

3. Pick a cadence that won’t make water coolers feel like a burden 

Water cooler chats should be fun and keep your employees engaged. They should not feel like a task your team has to cross off their to-do lists. For us, a weekly cadence works. Weekly virtual water coolers allow everyone to relax and connect during the week without feeling overwhelmed or distracted.

If unsure, ask a few team members to weigh in before setting things up. Some tools even let employees opt in or out of virtual water coolers so that each individual can find their perfect balance.

4. Consider adding structure to your virtual water coolers

Most water coolers, especially 1:1 conversations, don't need a structure for the conversation to flow organically. However, larger groups may benefit from some structure and leadership to break the ice and orchestrate better conversations. 

Consider nominating one participant as the meeting host to choose a fun and informal structure or theme. Encourage the host to take a relatively hands-off approach. Straying from the suggested structure isn’t necessarily bad once a lively conversation flows.

3 tips to encourage employees to participate

Some people are extroverts and naturally take the lead in water cooler activities, but others need encouragement to participate. Here are three tips to help you prop them up.

1. Lead by example

Remote workers look up to leaders and managers, and their buy-in on virtual water coolers will likely lead to broader adoption. During water coolers, leaders should contribute to conversations with non-work related chit-chat to communicate that informal chat is encouraged. 

2. Ask for constant feedback

To ensure your employees enjoy virtual water cooler chats, update the activity idea bank regularly and ask your workers for feedback.

You can collect feedback through pulse surveys or 1:1 meetings between employees and their managers. Ask employees how water cooler activities affect their workweek and if there are any conversation topics or games they particularly like or dislike.

Also, encourage employees to come up with their own ideas of how the team could organize the water cooler and suggest fun activities. You can set up a document, Notion page, or Drive folder where teams can drop their suggestions.

3. Don’t force anyone to participate

Never force your teammates to join water cooler sessions, but let them know they’re always welcome. Forced participation will turn relaxed moments of interaction into another task on the team’s to-do list, so the atmosphere in the meeting may not be as enjoyable as it should be.

Some people are introverted. They might not be confident enough to share their thoughts, ideas, and worries with people they don’t know well. Or maybe they don’t have time or interest in water cooler chats. Not participating in water cooler activities should not influence their value and involvement with the team.

Virtual water cooler ideas and activities

As with any team-building activity, exploring your team’s preferred activity might require trial and error. Here are a handful of water cooler activities to try out:

Virtual happy hours: A virtual happy hour is like going for a drink with your coworkers on Fridays after work, but online. Everyone grabs their favorite drink and joins a video call meetup where they can chat and unwind after a long week

Note: To make these sessions more inclusive, include in the messaging that drinking alcohol isn’t required. Some may prefer to stick with tea or water—especially when you work with employees in different time zones.

Culture exchange: If you work in a distributed team, use water cooler sessions to share fun facts or interesting stories about each member’s culture or country

Virtual book club: organize a monthly meeting where your team gathers on a video call to chat about a book that you’ve all read and give each other reading recommendations

Trivia night: organize a quiz on a topic of common interest for everyone involved, like a sports team, movie, TV show, celebrity, etc.

Games: choose a set of simple online games that will make everyone laugh and allow you to learn something about each other: Skribbl, Bingo, Cards Against Humanity, Words with Friends, This or That, are fun options

Movie night: choose a movie that the whole team can watch simultaneously on Netflix, Hulu, HBO, or any other streaming service. Use tools like Teleparty to synchronize video playback and chat with your team while watching the movie

Murder mystery: sign up for a website that hosts virtual murder mystery events for teams, like The Murder Mystery Co., and solve a “crime” together

Team lunch: if your team works within the same time zone, gather with them on a video call during lunch break and eat together while chatting or sharing your favorite lunch recipe

Photo/meme/gif/video sharing session: share your favorite childhood photos, memes, social media trends, GIFs, or videos with your team and chat about them

Build lasting bonds between teammates with Connections by Deel 

Connections by Deel is a Slack plugin that helps your team connect and forge stronger relationships.

Using the plugin, you can launch the following:

  • Interest groups: launch interest surveys to automatically create Slack channels based on team interests to help cultivate a stronger culture
  • Water cooler topics: Post conversation-starters in a channel and watch the connections grow. Get teams chatting with our pre-made topics, from food and travel to pets and music.
  • Meetup roulettes: Help teammates break the ice and strengthen bonds with meetup roulettes. From single channel to new hire intros, connections are a click away.

Check out our other essential HR integrations, or book a demo to see how Deel can support your team. 

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