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

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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 than our scheduled meetings. As importantly, the personal familiarity nurtured through watercooler conversations — regardless of the topic — created stronger interpersonal bonds between my employees, and I have to believe those stronger personal bonds enabled more innovative outcomes.

In other words, whether Bloom’s statement was a passing thought or a prediction based on rigorous research, from my socially isolated corner or the world, I see (and feel) the opportunities for innovation between colleagues vanishing. The casual conversations I used to have with colleagues that were the breeding grounds for lots of new ideas have all but vanished. In their place, we’re left with formal Zoom calls scheduled to discuss specific topics. And I know I’m not alone. A simple scroll through social media reaffirms this is true for lots of people.

Luckily, lost opportunities for casual conversations around the office is one impact of social distancing we can avoid relatively easily. Business leaders and managers just have to be proactive about creating online infrastructure to enable water cooler types of conversations for remote teams. So that’s the conversation I want to start here. I’ve been brainstorming ways to keep water cooler innovation alive while much of the world learns to work remotely, and I’m sharing them below. Please share yours, too, either in the comments or on Twitter @AaronDinin. If enough new suggestions show up, I’ll pull them together in another post and share everything in one place.

Strategy #1: Asynchronous innovation

While conversations around the water cooler take place synchronously, the same types of conversations can happen asynchronously in chat rooms and other forums. If your company already uses Slack or another similar messaging platform, create new channels where people can discuss non-work topics. My organization, for example, has channels dedicated to everything from our pets to sports to the current season of The Bachelor.

Strategy #2: Virtual happy hours

Lots of social groups are turning to virtual happy hours during the COVID-19 crisis, so why can’t your company do the same thing? Schedule a 4pm virtual happy hour one Friday afternoon via Zoom. No, you can’t pay everyone’s bar tab, but you can offer prizes, so get creative. Who couldn’t use an extra Amazon or Doordash gift card these days?

Strategy #3: Breakout room roulette

At the end of any large meeting, build-in extra time for a game I like to call “breakout room roulette.” This involves the meeting host randomly assigning three or four people to a 10 minute breakout room at the end of each meeting. Don’t forget to include yourself in one of the breakout rooms. It’s just as important for the boss to be connected with the community as everyone else.

Strategy #4: Implement your own version of Google’s 20% time

Google is famous for its 20% time: they encourage employees to spend 20% of their time working on projects outside/beyond their normal job responsibilities. This is a great strategy to implement with your remote-working team to keep the innovation flowing.

Strategy #5: Weekly Brown Bags

Assign people from different teams across your organization into small groups (three or four people) and schedule them for one brown bag lunch meeting per week. Be sure to let your teams know why you’re doing it (i.e. for maintaining community during the period of mandatory remote working) and assure employees that they don’t have to discuss anything work-related. They probably will anyway.

Do you have other ideas or strategies that have been working well for you? Remember to add them in the comments or share them with @AaronDinin on Twitter!

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