In the world of remote work, 69% of workers feel disconnected from their virtual teammates, especially during the pandemic. And 73% specifically say they miss social interactions with their colleagues during lunch breaks or water cooler chats between tasks. Disengagement and loneliness are issues of modern work that companies need to address proactively.
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 is a virtual water cooler?
Virtual water coolers are virtual spaces where remote employees have casual conversations between work-related tasks. Virtual water coolers allow employees to socialize, build stronger interpersonal relationships, and take breaks throughout the workday.
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 especially important in remote environments. Here are three very important benefits that come with the adoption of a virtual water cooler.
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.
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 can have a strong effect on 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.
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 take when implementing 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 may encourage employees to organize virtual water coolers whenever they please. Other companies may use tools to pair employees and suggest time slots where both employees are available to facilitate scheduling the session and encourage workers to chat.
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 kind of 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.
Other tools and platforms
If you wish to move away from Slack, you can use a simple video conferencing tool (Zoom, Microsoft Teams) to hold water cooler sessions or choose a tool created specifically for virtual water coolers.
Here are a few examples:
- Mural, a digital whiteboard with plenty of interesting features, such as sticky notes, connectors for building diagrams, and drawing options
- Water Cooler Trivia, a platform that automatically creates and schedules trivia asynchronously and automatically every week
- Sococo, 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, won’t have structure. Two or more people get to know one another organically, asking whatever questions feel natural. However, some structure and leadership may help break the ice and facilitate better conversations, especially for larger groups.
You may choose to incorporate presentations, Q&A sessions, or sessions dedicated to cultural exchange conversations. If so, consider nominating one participant as the meeting host so they can explain the structure and get people talking. However, since virtual water coolers are supposed to be informal and enjoyable, straying from the suggested structure isn’t necessarily bad. Encourage the host to take a relatively hands-off approach once a lively conversation is up and running.
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.
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.
Leaders embody company culture and spark participation from the larger team by participating in virtual water coolers. Virtual water cooler sessions involve chatting about topics other than work, so leaders taking part in these chats send the message that they care about their employees personally, too.
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.
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, perfecting you virtual water cooler activities might require some trial and error. Here are a handful of water cooler tips to play around with.
- 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—and they should still be welcome.
- 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, and more
- 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