woman watching a virtual event on her laptop, wearing headphones
PHOTO: Christina @ wocintechchat.com

As workers return to the office in some capacity, they're being reminded what they missed most during their time away.

Face-to-face, interpersonal interactions with co-workers, some of whom they may never have met in-person, is high on many people’s lists. To others, it's the revival of informal collaboration opportunities, of chance encounters in the hallway or kitchen that lead to an exchange of ideas — and potentially much more.

Employers mourned the loss of these chance encounters when working from home. The mass romanticization of the water cooler and of "water cooler conversation" has been hard to escape. The water cooler was “a bastion for freedom to talk,” one organizational psychologist from the University of Central Florida reminisced. “Whatever the challenges and advantages of working remotely, we’ve lost the chance to connect with colleagues in ways that are not planned,” another executive lamented.

While we saw a sprawl of virtual communication channels crop up — from messaging apps to video chat rooms — nothing 100% digital was really able to replicate that full water cooler experience.

The mistake was organizations didn’t need to replicate the experience as much as reimagine it.

It is in this reimagination that some of what used to pass for water cooler banter simply became redundant, and organizations found new ways to reach the same outcomes much more efficiently.

One Alternative to Water Cooler Interactions

Organizations have started to appreciate the role that technology can play in creating a water cooler for process. In an office setting, if we bumped into the head of people and culture at the water cooler or in the hallway, we might have asked after the progress of a new staffer’s induction or some other HR-related happening.

With such chance encounters out of the question in the past year, some organizations decided to bypass them entirely and formalize their business processes to digitally keep track of new employee inductions.

Tracking this digitally gives everyone visibility into the process. There’s no longer any need to ask someone about it, or to waste a chance meeting asking for a progress update. The formal digitized process pacifies that need for the chance hallway interaction.

While this has worked well, it doesn't address all water cooler interactions.

Related Article: Can You Create 'Water Cooler' Culture in the Virtual Workplace?

Adapting to Worker Demands

As we move to permanent hybrid workplace setups, where some staff attend the office while others work from home or remotely, we will need to reimagine other aspects of employee interactions that have not yet been successfully digitized — but this time with a hybrid operating model top-of-mind.

We've already seen a groundswell in productivity and remote work-oriented start-ups that have captured what's required to support flexible work environments comprising in-person and remote staff. Established players in the tech industry are also reshaping their products and services to enable this hybrid operating model and employee experience (EX).

Expect to see a significant increase in the use of these hybrid EX products, quite simply because employers have no choice but to support staff to work effectively in a hybrid fashion. It has become a minimum requirement.

New candidates, in particular, are demanding hybrid support. They've just been through a period of time where they made life-changing decisions about where they live and how they want to work.

They care less about central offices, and more about the new employee experience.

What are one-to-one and all-hands meetings going to look like? What do the first three months look like? Something as simple as mandating an in-person office induction on day one is enough to discourage many prospects from accepting job offers these days. The hybrid employee experience really matters.

Work Is About Making Things Happen, Wherever You Are

In some ways, this is the embodiment of something Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, said back in 2015, well before the COVID-19 pandemic was even a prospect. “Work is no longer a place you go to. Work is about making things happen where you are. [It is also] having the experience you need to get things done, available on every device wherever.”

Provided employees are given the right tools to foster a hybrid, inclusive employee experience, there is no doubt they can work from anywhere and even exceed pre-pandemic levels of productivity.