Why we miss the water cooler
Do you miss the banter at the printer or on your coffee run? Turns out those workplace interactions are very important.
- Business leaders are struggling to find ways of replicating their company culture online as remote working becomes normal.
- Company culture influences where accounting students want to work.
- New hires find it difficult to pick up non-spoken and understood norms of an organisation when they’re working remotely.
By Jessica Sier
It wasn’t long into the pandemic lockdown before my newly remote team at Dow Jones in Spain began to drift apart. People would take hours to reply to Slack messages, the quality of work diminished – there were even sly side-chats about why our manager hadn’t logged on all morning.
The absence of an office to go to meant there was no water cooler or printer where you could strike up a spontaneous conversation with a random colleague. And our manager had made clear she thought Zoom-beers were awkward and silly.
It wasn’t the absence of work that was the problem – believe me, there was plenty of work – but the absence of work culture.
“It’s easy to overlook what an important role those impromptu coffee catch-ups and Friday night beers play in overall business productivity,” explains Paulette Kolarz, a workplace culture expert at BespokeHR in Adelaide, who helps professional teams transition from office conversations to Microsoft Teams calls.
“Replacing that social aspect online takes a fair bit of work and planning,” she says, adding that many organisations did not have their company culture or business values defined before they began working remotely.
“Replacing that social aspect online takes a fair bit of work and planning.”
Yet millions of professional workers around the world are discovering they prefer the flexibility of remote work. Many are relishing the chance to work in their pyjamas or chuck a chicken in the oven at four o’clock.
But as productivity wavers under the stress of a pandemic (and pyjamas start to lose their lustre) many business leaders are struggling to find ways of replicating their much-loved company culture online.
After all, company culture is important. When Journal of Accountancy recently surveyed 132 accounting students about what factors influenced where they applied for internships, company culture was at the top of the list.
What about social learning?
“Businesses miss quite a lot without a physical office, particularly around social learning,” says Karen Kirton, founder of Amplify HR in Sydney.
“Businesses miss quite a lot without a physical office, particularly around social learning.”
“People become better at their jobs when they overhear how someone handles something on the phone, or they are informally included in a meeting as they walk by.”
Kolarz adds that new hires find it difficult to pick up non-spoken and understood norms of the organisation when they’re working remotely, while employees who generally shine in client-facing meetings may struggle to establish the same sparkle over video calls.
Melbourne-based Katie Bryan CA, chief executive officer at Propeller Advisory, has found she needs to jumpstart conversations about the weekend, or people’s lives, to maintain morale.
“COVID itself has affected everyone individually so I’m trying to keep my finger on the pulse to keep people connected,” says Bryan, who instigates 10-minute huddles every morning, and has a “flow hour” once a week where everyone connects via Zoom and, without talking, works quietly together as if they were in the office.
“Some people are really stressed, and we have seen productivity drop off and people make silly mistakes because they’re not leaving the office to have lunch anymore to clear their heads,” she says.
To combat the monotony of working from home, Bryan uses online tools and games to connect her dispersed staff. That creates space for conviviality, while bringing new team members into the mix.
“I run a survey every week, so I can see that even though I’m forcing people to talk and connect, they’re actually really enjoying it,” she says.
Is it time to include non-work-related goals in employees’ KPIs?
Happiness and being successful at work are not mutually exclusive. Here’s how including ‘human’ KPIs can boost productivity.Read more