How to Enable “Water Cooler Innovation” for Remote Working Teams

Aaron Dinin, PhD
4 min readMar 31, 2020

The immediate economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are obvious — a falling stock market, decreased consumer spending, massive layoffs, and so on. Less obvious, but perhaps equally important, are the long-term impacts. And not just a few months from now. Economists are already wondering about the ripple effects decades into the future. For example, on a recent podcast, Stanford economist Nicholos Bloom made the following point:

I think another thing that’s going to be damaged in the long run, actually, is: if everyone’s working from home, there’s not going to be that kind of workplace discussions, coffee-table discussions, lunchtime talk. And most of that, it turns out, is important for long-run innovation… when you examine businesses or scientists or even the way I do my own research, a lot of that creativity comes from idle time and relaxed discussion with colleagues, and that’s all gone. So I also worry that five, 10 years out from now, we will see this as another lowering in long-run growth rate because we’ve taken a big hit to innovation.

Is this just one economist’s extemporaneous musing during a casual podcast interview, or is Bloom’s comment a prediction we should genuinely be concerned about? Ten years from now, long after the world has (hopefully) moved on from the coronavirus crisis, will innovation still be stunted?

Not having the economic pedigree of Professor Bloom, I can’t defend or contradict his point from a position of academic authority. However, from personal experience, I agree. For example, while running my own companies, our regularly scheduled meetings were always operational and rarely produced significant innovation. We always had agendas with specific items to discuss, so the meetings revolved around those items rather than exploring new opportunities.

In contrast, casual engagement — what Bloom calls “lunchtime talk” and others refer to as “conversation around the watercooler” — was the breeding ground for new ideas. Without set agendas, watercooler conversations had the kind of space and flexibility that allowed participants to explore new ideas. Sure, plenty of those conversations never touched on work-related topics. But, when they did, the results contributed more to new innovation within my companies…

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Aaron Dinin, PhD

I teach entrepreneurship at Duke. Software Engineer. PhD in English. I write about the mistakes entrepreneurs make since I’ve made plenty. More @ aarondinin.com