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Future Of Work
Mar 2020
The Death of Water Cooler Conversations
The way that we talk to and interact with each other has changed dramatically over recent years. The centerpiece of this evolution has been the rise of social media, which has made digital conversation easier than ever. But what about in the workplace? It used to be that the water cooler was the most common meeting place, especially for spontaneous conversations and unscheduled brainstorming sessions. However, while you’re likely not communicating with your colleagues over Instagram, workplace communication has indeed changed in recent years––in addition to what kind of impromptu conversations are taking place in the office. While it might not be that water cooler conversations have formally been pronounced dead yet, their decline in prominence tells a larger story of how workplace culture has shifted towards a digital age.  

New Meeting Places

Let’s face it: The water cooler no longer holds a treasured place in our society. It was once one of the most popular spots for co-workers to meet. Now, though, there are more environments in which to talk freely. The increasing focus of brokers, landlords, executives, and office managers to make workplaces less formal has led to the construction of more spaces designed for casual conversation. This trend of less formality can be seen in multiple ways. For example, managers are reporting that 50 percent of workers are wearing less formal clothes to work. In some cases, workers might not even be coming in to work at all, as companies begin to have a greater focus on employees working from home and less mandated in-office workdays.  
This shift is affecting the way that workplaces get designed. It used to be that within office environments, most would get their own cubicle. Having this isolated space meant that the water cooler was one of the only places where employees would be able to spark up a conversation with one another. Offices of the modern age have largely rejected this way of working for more collaborative, informal environments. For instance, there are larger open kitchen facilities that people can access that get stocked with snack favorites, or even a diverse array of appliances to encourage employees to bring or make their own lunch. Alternatively, some businesses feature lounge facilities to help staff relax or decompress (Facebook even has climbing walls that they encourage employees to get active on). Workers may also want to use apps like Slack to have a private conversation with a fellow worker instead of waiting to have that same chat by a mutual meeting ground. By making employees feel more comfortable, it’s believed that businesses will be able to achieve an increase in productivity, henceforth continuing this trend into the foreseeable future. Such a pattern ensures that the water cooler will continue to become a less relevant part of workplace culture.

New Conversation Topics

Another factor that might be contributing to the fading relevance of the water cooler is the conversation topics. In earlier days, people used to gather around to discuss the most popular television shows. Decades ago there were only a handful of channels on TV, which thus ensured people were likely watching the same shows. In many ways, these shows became significant cultural touchstones that everyone in the office knew about. In the digital wave, however, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.
The rise of streaming services has completely turned cable TV on its side as more people are inclined to cut the cord. It’s estimated that cord-cutting has increased by around 48 percent in the previous eight years. There are a few potential reasons why this is occurring. First, streaming services provide an incomparable amount of content at your fingertips for a very low price, oftentimes even less than subscribing to traditional cable networks. For those who do decide to cut the cord, over 54 percent say that they don’t miss anything about cable TV. The downside is that streaming has made it harder for people to share views on mutually watched shows. Not only is there a larger discrepancy between what you might be watching and what your coworker is viewing, but even if you both have seen the same show, it’s likely you’re not watching it at the same time. This means complete thoughts can’t be shared by one party, while certain scenes or characters are harder to recall for the other. The wider variety of viewing options is indeed convenient and beneficial to the viewer, but it does make it more challenging to find shows with which everyone is familiar. And that very well might determine whether you spark up a conversation with a coworker while you’re grabbing a quick drink of water or not.

Benefits Of Water Cooler Conversations

While the traditional water cooler conversation is on the downfall, there are convincing reasons why employers should think about bringing this style of workplace exchange back (or at least the idea of it).
One of the biggest reasons is because it builds the company’s culture. People can mix socially, even if it’s only for a few minutes, and the serendipitous social interaction ensures that everyone gets to know each other on a comfortable level. When teams form these strong, personal relationships, they feel inclined to work harder for the entire collective. In addition, because of healthy relationships, the workplace can often feel more comfortable for employees and can lead to higher retention rates and less employee churn. Besides, these impromptu conversations may morph into discussions about a work project or an internal venture idea, and give them opportunities to both talk about problems and suggest solutions.
There are a few tips that you can try to get the most benefits out of these ‘water cooler-style chats.’. To start, you might need to take the initiative and start the conversation. As we’ve seen, trying to talk about what you watched on TV last night may be difficult if you’re trying to bond over a common thread, especially if you don’t have the same subscriptions. Asking someone if they watched Game of Thrones last night seems like a good idea until the other person says no and then has little to contribute to the conversation. So instead, ask what they did on the weekend. Alternatively, you might want to revisit an old topic, which will allow you to build on previous conversations.

Updating The Water Cooler

Just because the old water cooler has fallen out of fashion doesn’t mean that it’s gone entirely. It just needs to transition to suit the new workplaces. There are a few ways that you will be able to update the water cooler in your workplace, allowing you to capitalize on the benefits of this form of communication.
First, you might want to use more virtual technologies. There is rising evidence that young people feel more comfortable talking over the internet than they do talking face-to-face. Because of this, you might want to consider starting an online chatroom for employees with mutual interests. Also, it would be best if you strived to create an environment where people feel comfortable talking to each other, which can often mean re-shaping the office. For example, you can bring in more comfortable furniture or create more designated collaborative spaces.
The water cooler conversations may be dead thanks to changing work requirements and the rise of cord-cutting. But, maybe, you can find a way to create a new way to open up the lines of communication between employees.