Reinventing water cooler chats: Fostering social interaction is key to increasing workplace productivity


Founder and chief executive of presentation studio Emma Bannister. Source: Supplied.

We all know what happens around the water cooler. It’s the spot for banter, gossip and catch-ups. Every office has one, whether it’s an actual water cooler or not.

But, what you may not know is a recent MIT research project has proven the ‘water cooler effect’ increases employee productivity by 10-15%. Encouraging social interaction and positive office culture could be the key to increasing your workplace’s productivity.

What’s more, there’s a new water cooler. Namely, people.

As people become the centre of office interactions, these social opportunities become more meaningful.

The limitations of a ‘water cooler’

Usually, water cooler chat is fairly surface level. Whether it’s a five-second chat by the office fridge or some gossip around a literal water cooler, employees often feel guilty indulging in non-work related conversation and so are forced to keep it short and sharp.

Typically, water cooler chat is gossip or standard ‘what did you on the weekend?’ conversations.

This is because water cooler chat is really a manifestation of suppressed social interactions throughout the rest of the day. It’s a band-aid solution for issues of isolation and a lack of real friendships in the workplace.

Under the pressure of a ticking clock or a watching boss, employees feel their only chance for social interaction in the work day is a quick chat in the kitchen.

No-excuse-needed conversations

Employees shouldn’t need an excuse (or prop) to interact with one another. Water cooler conversation only exists as a substitute for real conversation. By making people the new water coolers, we are allowing a no-excuses-needed culture for conversation.

As mentioned before, this tiny bit of social interaction boosts productivity significantly. Imagine the difference it would make to allow socialisation of higher quality and quantity.

Next time an employee wanders over to someone else’s desk for a chat, don’t panic about their productivity. Encouraging genuine social interactions throughout the day is a sure-fire way to create a corporate culture which is positive, supportive and collaborative.

Employees who know each other, and enjoy each other’s company, make a great team.

Experts suggest more breaks

In order to protect focus and working hours, introducing more leeway for breaks is a great method for helping change your water cooler culture.

The MIT research team suggests allowing shorter and more frequent breaks in the workday could be the key to allowing deeper, more authentic relationships between employees to be built.

When an employee ducks out to grab a coffee with a colleague, know the 15 minutes away from their desk will benefit their continued productivity and mental health.

Less gossip, more relationship

Employees are crying out for better relationships. Say goodbye to the stereotypical water cooler conversation about office gossip and encourage real friendships where people feel known and supported.

Water cooler conversations, which are surface level, or even negative, will stop once employees feel comfortable chatting throughout their day.

An office which is full of laughter and conversation is a great sign!

Digital water cooler

Finally, it’s important to think of digital water cooler solutions.

Chats for specific groups, teams and projects is a way of incorporating conversation into everyday office life. Fun, social emails are always a welcome surprise in an employee’s inbox, too. Don’t be afraid to get creative. Add some fun into your digital communications and watch your office culture transform.

People are the new water coolers because employees want, and need, a better office life. Boost productivity by fostering genuine interactions and allowing friendships to be forged. A water cooler gossip session is a poor replacement for a culture which encourages real conversation.

Employees thrive when they feel supported, inspired, known and cared for. As intrinsically social beings, we all need more than water cooler chat. We need ‘people’ chat.

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