Hybrid work: Recreating the ‘watercooler effect’ to boost innovation and culture

Many employees have been returning to the office in increasing numbers for the past couple of years, going in for a variety of days and hours per week depending on their manager, personal lives and even commutes.

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However, just 35% of U.S. companies have called workers back to the office full-time, meaning most employers rarely have everyone in the office at the same time.

Experts say this hybrid work environment creates challenges for people’s strategy and business success. CEOs at Apple and Boeing, for example, have spoken out about losing their innovative edge and healthy corporate culture because they fear remote employees are missing out on serendipitous encounters with co-workers.

HR leaders are being tasked with creating so-called “watercooler moments” regardless of work location to foster employee connection, spark innovation and create the culture that the C-suite wants.

Planning an encounter that feels organic is the challenge, experts say. In the office, there is an infrastructure in place for such interactions to occur, such as an actual watercooler, breakroom, parking garage or even the bathroom, says Tim Hickle, a consultant specializing in virtual communication and author of the Medium post “How to Have Watercooler Moments When Your Team is Remote.”

“These are natural places where people bump into each other and are catalysts for social interactions,” he notes. “You need to replace that environment with a virtual one but be intentional on how you build it. You’re trying to replace a bunch of infrastructure that we all take for granted.”

5 tips for driving culture in a hybrid work environment

Done right, virtual “watercooler” encounters can boost employee engagement and build company culture. But, done wrong, they can be time-wasters and a turnoff for workers. Experts suggest arranging meaningful ways for employees to connect in an inclusive manner that can also build trust.

Foster common connections

Find ways to bring together employees who share interests or face similar problems at work, suggests Katheryn Brekken, senior research analyst with i4cp. Slack, Teams or other collaboration tools can connect people around a variety of causes, sparking relationships that could eventually help solve business problems, says Brekken, also the author of i4cp’s report “Reinventing the Watercooler Effect: How Virtual Cross-Company Encounters Can Increase Innovation in a Hybrid World.”

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For example, she says that one organization created a Slack channel for any employee to discuss, learn, and share their knowledge about generative AI.

“You’re going to meet people during your life, and they’ll be acquaintances,” Brekken says. “If you want to move someone from an acquaintance to a friend, you have to do something together or have a shared purpose.” The same would apply to developing a working relationship, she notes.

Break up silos with transparency

Katheryn Brekken, i4cp
Katheryn Brekken

It’s easy for teams to create silos while working in a hybrid or fully remote environment, Brekken says, but they can inhibit innovation. One way to dismantle silos is to have teams post their organizational goals and team leaders on a company portal or intranet. These goals can prompt discussion and collaboration, fueling innovation, Brekken notes.

“By having that transparency of seeing who is working on what across the organization and having leaders encourage you to join other teams for the collective good of the organization, it will spur innovation and motivate people,” she says.

Don’t leave chance encounters to chance

Before the pandemic, serendipitous run-ins at the proverbial watercooler were common. However, with only half of an organization’s employees in the office at any given time today—according to Kastle Systems, which monitors employee badge swipes—such encounters need to be intentional, says Brekken.

“Can you believe how laissez-faire we were about innovation before the pandemic? We would leave innovation to chance,” she says. 

Increasingly, employers are tasking entire teams—not just team leaders—with creating networks of internal and external stakeholders. This helps build strong relationships, develop resilience and establish a network of resources for all team members, Brekken says.

Tim Hickle
Tim Hickle, virtual communication expert

HR leaders should ensure infrastructure to build such networks—like virtual meeting rooms or coffee break apps—is available to the workforce. Employees can use such tools to coordinate recurring, one-on-one video chats or phone calls with colleagues across departments, where they can discuss issues or projects, as well as non-work-related shared interests, Hickle says.

Build trust virtually

Even though video calls can help workers connect, Hickle says, it can be hard to develop deep trust through these and other virtual channels like Slack and email.

In a physical setting, trust develops naturally, he says. Consider when a co-worker is late turning in work, but you see piles of new projects on their desk. In person, you likely would understand the delay, something that’s less certain if you received a verbal or email explanation stating simply that they were busy.

To their colleagues, remote workers may seem like anonymous avatars on a computer screen. So, when they decline to help a co-worker due to a busy schedule, that may elicit anger versus compassion, Hickle says.

Teams must create structures that make it easy to develop a level of trust when colleagues are working remotely, he says. Competence, benevolence and integrity are three pillars that team members must exemplify to create a structure of trust in a remote environment, according to a Harvard Business Review report.

One way to show benevolence during a virtual meeting is to send an emoji giving a co-worker a high-five, clap or congratulatory expression to boost morale for a job well done, Hickle advises.

Level the playing field for hybrid work meetings

When a hybrid workforce conducts meetings, consider having all attendees use their laptops to participate in the meeting if one or more of the attendees will be logging in remotely, Hickle says.

“This way, everyone is on equal footing,” Hickle explains. “Otherwise, you have this ‘Great Wizard of Oz’ thing going on.”

Like the characters in the famed movie, Hickle notes that remote workers will hear a voice coming through the screen but may have difficulty hearing the full discussion or having their own voice heard when talking. This can make inclusivity difficult to achieve during the meeting.

“Any time you really want to make sure remote workers can contribute to the meeting, you should have everyone on their own computer,” Hickle says. “That’s especially true if it’s a super important meeting where everyone’s voice needs to be heard.”

Learn more about building a strong culture at HRE’s Elevate People, Ignite Change (EPIC) conference, April 24-26 at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. Hear Kevin Oakes, CEO of i4cp and author of “Culture Renovation,” speak on Culture Fitness: Healthy Habits of High-Performance Organizations.

Dawn Kawamoto, Human Resource Executive
Dawn Kawamoto
Dawn Kawamoto is HR Editor of Human Resource Executive. She is an award-winning journalist who has covered technology business news for such publications as CNET and has covered the HR and careers industry for such organizations as Dice and Built In prior to joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected] and below on social media.