Water-cooler chat: A brief, marvelous moment in the workday when employees share office buzz and tales from the weekend outside of their cubicles—and a must-have for virtual team building.
Bonding, constructive criticism, knowledge sharing and innovation are the fruits of such spontaneous communication. But when your workers’ only interactions are online or on the phone, how do you capture the magic of water-cooler chat without the ability to bump into each other?
A 2015 virtual socialization case study by Dell and Deloitte found that virtual water-cooler chats are not only possible but also very beneficial in terms of engagement and innovation, as long as you have a key ingredient: a lack of structure.
What does that mean? No agendas and maybe even no invites allowed. Outside of these formalities, teammates feel more comfortable to express concerns and frustrations, to ask “stupid” questions, to articulate out-of-the-box ideas and to share more personal stories.
5 Ways to Recreate Water-Cooler Chat Online
However, the places you go to discuss project ideas, share documents and provide updates aren’t the same places you should share emojis and GIFs with your teammates. Using the wrong type of tool to socialize only slows down the more important stuff you’re doing there.
So where do you go if you don’t have breakrooms, hallways and water coolers? Here are five ideas for connecting virtual teams without agendas and invites:
- Group chats: Probably one of the most common tools that virtual teams use to gab and gossip is instant messaging. Presence shows you who’s available so you can quickly connect and say what’s on your mind. However, because virtual teammates often use this for one-on-one chats, it becomes exclusive. To make instant messaging a better virtual team building activity, include everyone to beat the afternoon slump and snap out of Monday moodiness with your musings, random thoughts, venting and vacation plotting.
- Video chats: Video conferencing is another solid standby for team building, but if it becomes too structured and work-oriented, it loses its effectiveness as an alternative to the water cooler. So instead of scheduling a virtual happy hour or tacking on five minutes to your online meeting for water-cooler chat, be more spontaneous. Ask your virtual teammates to join you for lunch in your online meeting room right before noon—not surprisingly, food is another essential for successful virtual socialization, according to the Dell and Deloitte case study.
- Fun zones: Tools like team workspaces may offer less personal connections than chat or video, but they’re much more accommodating of flexible schedules and time zones. However, to ensure your team workspace is welcomed as a place for water-cooler chat, you need fun zones. Create a workspace just for non-work communication and initiate a slew of new discussion groups (“What are you binge watching this week?”). This way, you’ll not only keep your project spaces from getting bogged down by funny one-liners but also help create an atmosphere that encourages teammates to think outside of the cubicle.
- Suggestion boxes: When you’re planning spaces for casual conversations, don’t forget about the awkward, negative ones, too. Asking your virtual team the equivalent of “How’s my driving?” isn’t going to get you the feedback you really need if they’re telling you over the phone or email. Freelance marketplace Crew suggests creating a digital suggestion box with anonymous online tools like Suggestion Ox to see what your team really thinks about ideas, project deadlines and new initiatives.
- Social media: Typically social media platforms like LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook are tricky territory for interacting with colleagues, but in an effort to authentically connect, virtual teams should leverage these tools even more than typical teams. Social marketing strategist Ted Rubin even calls this “Looking People in the Eye Digitally” and has 12 great tips for staying present with your teammates on social media without crossing any lines.
Communication is at the core of great teamwork, but there’s a lot more to it than just shooting the breeze and showing up in your video cube. Read more about getting strategic with team communication on PGi’s blog today.