Creating the Water Cooler for Remote Teams

March 24th, 2020

The problem: I run a department in a large non-profit. The team is spread out across multiple countries and time zones. We can't afford to meet together in person. People are feeling disconnected. When people feel disconnected, they lose creativity, collaboration, and it can lead to a lack of trusting each other. 

I worked in an office environment for over a decade. We had a startup-like feel in terms of furniture for part of that and a cubicle farm for others. I had an office for a few years where I could shut the door and focus and during it all, I worked from home at times when Vancouver declared a snow day. Productivity increased for me when I worked from home as I wasn't distracted by people stopping by to say hello, to ask a question, or give me an in-person bug report.

What I missed over time, however, was "chatting over the wall". Finding out how a co-worker's new baby was doing or hearing the latest complaints from Vancouver Canuck fans about the referees. I was able to get to know people and although some became friends, just knowing my acquaintance's reaction to real-world situations gave me the ability to trust their character (or question it in a few cases.)

There are probably studies to prove and disprove this theory but in my view, the unofficial watercooler conversations develop a team better than any fall-off-the-tree-and-we-will-catch-you retreat will.

Due to budget constraints, the team in the office shrank. We always had a team that was spread out across the country but when hiring began again, we hired people that could work remotely. Soon, just a handful of our team was working full-time in the office. We were using tools like Slack and Hangouts to communicate.

When all you do together is come up with plans and implement them, you can miss out on the God-given talents that people are blessed with.

- Me

A few years ago I moved to a small city and my closest team member was a 2-hour flight away. Our team was spread out over 4 time-zones in Canada and we were expanding worldwide. We never saw each other in person except at a staff conference when most of us could gather together.

Our designer, who was working remotely and never connected in-person raised the concern about a lack of community. Even though she would engage in the #random channel on slack, she didn't really feel a part of the team.

The Solution: A consistent, no-agenda, everyone invited, zoom video call. We call it community time but you can call it "The Water Cooler" or another fancy name if you want.

The first people to join, start the conversation about whatever they want and it goes where it goes. Sometimes the laughter is contagious, sometimes we talk about hard times that people are going through (if they want to of course.) Stories from our more experienced teammates make us wonder why they haven't written books. Those that engage, become more connected on the team and seem to trust each other more because they know each other. 

You also realize that even though someone's role is A, they may actually also be really good at B in their spare time as they share their latest photos or illustrations.

When all you do together is come up with plans and implement them, you can miss out on the God-given talents that people are blessed with.

Our community times happen on Wednesday for an hour and Friday for a half-hour. It isn't mandatory to attend both but I've asked that people attend at least one a week if they can. 

We've even made it a part of our recruiting pitch like doing a tour of the office was. People can join our team in our community time to see if they would want to work with us.

As we currently live in the days of lockdowns, social-distancing and working from home, these planned community times are even more important for your team to remain a team.

Photo by Dillon Shook on Unsplash