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Do you want to build a better remote work environment? Create a virtual watercooler

Positive interaction, engagement, and assertive communication. Three hot topics that come up every time an office manager argues in favor of switching to remote or at least hybrid work modes.

And it´s always the side that wants to stick with the status quo that sounds the alarm about these things, arguing that companies are bound to lose “the old face to face networking way of getting to know valuable employees”.

I had a million discussions with key clients about the risk of missing out on random daily interactions when establishing a remote or distributed system, and while it may be true that real physical interactions cannot be replaced with zoom meetings, there are many effective ways to create these types of serendipitous moments in remote environments, and sometimes the results can be far better than expected.

Case and point. A couple of weeks ago, Prithwiraj (Raj) Choudhury, an associate professor at the Harvard Business School, appeared on an excellent Freakonomics Podcast episode about remote work trends and productivity effects of geographic mobility of workers. During the interview, he referred to one of his studies that involved a simple, yet innovative tool to create virtual synchronous interactions (Encounters) called the Virtual Watercooler.

They experimented with creating random interactions between managers and interns that simulated the occasional moment in which both sides ran into each other, assigning a certain time limit to chat about whatever they wanted, mainly job responsibilities, satisfaction, and expectations. The result? Interns who participated in the experiment significantly increased their chances of landing a full-time job at the company and were happier with their experience.

The 62-page essay written by Iavor Bojinov, Prithwiraj Choudhury, and Jacqueline N. Lane concluded that.

“Hosting brief virtual water cooler sessions with senior managers might have job and career benefits for organizational newcomers working in remote workplaces, an insight with immediate managerial relevance.”

Does this mean that every company should have a virtual watercooler system to improve the engagement and interaction of their remote staff? Well, in my humble opinion, yes and no. Companies, especially those who are transitioning to hybrid or distributed modes, need to find what type of structure they want to create before they start implementing events that will only work if done for a pre-established period in a certain way.

The truth is that when it comes to successfully building a distributed workforce, we are still testing the waters in more ways than one. The pandemic has changed the way many people perceive working from home and the way companies feel about hiring remote workers, that alone changes many of the fundamental aspects that were considered for earlier studies, like the fact that there was no external reason to try it in the first place or the scale of the (forced) transition that took place in 2020 and 2021.

The virtual watercooler makes use of technologies that didn’t exist ten years ago (or at least not like they do now) and the same goes for collaborative work apps, HR management tools, and easy-to-use conference software. The average remote worker has the means and infrastructure to perform effectively from his home, something that was also rare a decade ago.

Companies that want to improve communications and employee satisfaction should also consider cutting down unnecessary meetings and briefs, approaching their employees about their real needs, search for collaborative tools that solve their problems instead of increasing the workload, and, last but not least, understand that we are all still adjusting after years, if not decades, of a workspace that had a completely different set of rules and habits.

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