Water cooler conversation hero

Reinventing the Watercooler Effect: How virtual cross-company encounters can increase innovation in a hybrid world

For nearly 50 years, organizational leaders have celebrated the watercooler effect—the power of an office amenity to bring together acquaintances from different departments and spark eureka! moments.

The late Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos, referred to these interactions as “collisions,” serendipitous social encounters that drive innovation. Knowing their impact, he designed a physical office space and culture to strategically promote the cross-pollination of information from different departments and produce a return on community (ROC).

But for the past year-and-a-half, hybrid and remote work has stymied the number of spontaneous face-to-face interactions taking place around company watercoolers the world over.

Yet, contrary to concerns voiced by leaders worldwide, our research at the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) indicates engagement hasn’t suffered during the pandemic. The unsettled question regularly bandied about by the media and tech executives in particular, is if and how virtual connections lead to breakthroughs.  

We can learn a lot by looking at organizations that have intentionally designed and built remote office cultures to strategically foster innovation. Recently named the 10th best small company for remote workers, i4cp offers a fascinating case study. As a recent hire, I came on board September 1, fresh out of an academic job where I had worked online since March 2020. A researcher well-schooled in old-school organizational and leadership development theories, I had no idea what a healthy virtual office should be in practice. That’s why I wanted to dig into available research and pull back the curtain to highlight what’s working here and at other thriving e-culture organizations, practices that are easily adoptable today.

Creating a remote-friendly culture in which networks thrive

Whether its Slack, Teams, Facebook’s Workplace, or another collaboration platform, having a place where all employees, regardless of level, geography, or work location, are present is key to designing a collaborative hybrid or remote office culture.

Creating clear expectations around office norms or rituals can place everyone on equal footing. Zillow’s “One Zoom; all Zoom” approach recognizes this and ensures that if one person is using a virtual meeting platform, the rest of the group will as well.

In addition, Zillow’s vice president of learning and development Corina Kolbe recently described another important cultural norm to spur connections. To respect employees’ time (and their time zones), Zillow has core working hours from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Pacific or 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern.

“Those are hours we expect people to be online. The rest of the time is flexible for you to work with your manager,” Kolbe told senior HR executives in a May Next Practices Monthly call hosted by i4cp.

Once organizations have created a virtual work environment, they can use these platforms to build space for not-about-work exchanges that connect people across the organization and create social capital. Successful remote cultures use their communication platforms to create channels or rooms focused on non-work activities, such as book clubs, happy hours, or in our case the ‘fun stuff’ channel, where i4cp co-workers post gut-busting memes, uplifting articles, and always relevant Dilbert cartoons.

My second day on the job, I received a detailed email from Carrie Bevis, our managing director of communities and partnerships, with not one but five different ways to develop connections across the organization within virtual office platforms. More so, my colleagues are encouraging me to participate in these activities; I feel socially influenced to engage. Virtual peer pressure is real folks, and it can be a force for good when yielded to support organizational values.   

Empower employees with vital company information

While corporations can have a reputation for cut-throat environments where knowledge is power, creating an authentic e-office requires all hands-on deck to have equal access to information. Slack, for instance, has created biweekly 20-minute all-company meetings with executives dialing in from home. They also conduct regular townhall Q and A sessions with employees to create openness and shared understanding.

At i4cp, the entire company meets once a month virtually to discuss progress on key organizational priorities. The meeting ends with company shoutouts, a time for good deeds to be noticed in this virtual space. Everyone leaves the meeting feeling seen, with a clearer picture of the organization’s interests, purpose, and values.

Furthermore, they also obtain a better understanding of who is doing what. The latter is critical to taking the chance out of the watercooler effect and enabling intentional cross-functional collisions to occur. Because if I have a skill or piece of information I believe may benefit another unit of the company, I now know with whom I should connect.

Measure what matters

Creating the right environment where virtual networking and weak-tie collisions can occur is important. But the science of network analysis has evolved to allow employers to try their hand at matchmaking to increase the odds that those encounters lead to innovation.

For example, organizational network analysis (ONA), a methodology that maps employees’ working relationships and provides insight into the internal flow of information and how work gets done, can help employers understand how to better connect skills and capabilities across the organization. These connections can drive development of a new product or service, improve processes, or even identify which connections among employees should happen in person or virtually. ONA can also be helpful to examine things such as the impact of DE&I programs and if the right collaborations and interactions needed to connect diverse ideas are taking place.

Time & attention

All the above approaches to purposefully foster innovation-producing connections are meaningless if leaders do not model their envisioned virtual culture. This is harder to scale than almost all aspects of reinventing the watercooler effect because it requires time and attention on the part of those who often have the least to spare.

Spontaneous collisions that spark innovation require some form of underlying relationship, which takes time. According to a recent article in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, turning a stranger into an acquaintance (a weak tie) requires about 30 hours. It takes about 50 hours of interaction to move from acquaintance to casual friend, 90 hours to move from casual friend to legit friend, and more than 200 hours to qualify as a best friend.

That’s a lot of time in front of a screen. Some companies, such as i4cp, have developed select opportunities to connect employees in person, using annual conferences or IRL critical brainstorming meetings, which research has shown may be more likely to spark innovation than virtual sessions at the beginning of a project.

Moreover, what you do during that time also matters. Participants need to focus on meaningful conversations. This requires attention and being present in the moment, undistracted by Smart phones, cat memes, or children running in and out of the room.

Kevin Oakes, i4cp’s CEO, recently published the book, Culture Renovation®: 18 Leadership Actions to Build an Unshakeable Company, on how to renovate organizational culture through actionable steps that the company lives. Chief among the messages of the book: culture predicts performance. A healthy culture will support opportunity for the magic of serendipitous encounters to occur; this starts with leaders. If leaders aren’t present on your company’s communication platform, if they don’t share relevant information or empower employees to do so, your people won’t either, and this represents immeasurable lost opportunities.

In other words, you can do all the work to build a virtual watercooler, but if leaders don’t show up and do the work, no one else will.

Katheryn Brekken, Ph.D., is a senior research analyst at i4cp

Katheryn Brekken, Ph.D.
Katheryn Brekken, Ph.D., is a senior research analyst with the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp). Prior to joining i4cp, she served as an assistant professor of research with the MGM Resorts Public Policy Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Public Policy and Leadership, where she continues to lecture. She has worked closely with government and corporate leaders to develop and evaluate education and training programs and as a policy advisor. She has over 15 years of experience in public affairs and has testified before legislative bodies on matters of higher education and workforce policy. She is published in various academic journals including Politics & Policy, Community College Journal of Research & Practice, and State and Local Government Review. She received her Ph.D. in Public Affairs from UNLV.