What is a virtual water cooler & how to set one up
August 12, 2022
Bring spontaneous social interaction to your team whether you’re working remote, hybrid, or wanting to take a break from work entirely.
You’ve heard the debate. One side says that the freedoms offered by remote work make employees lives better (and ultimately increase productivity), while the other side says it’s impossible to have a true sense of connection or belonging without being physically together.
Whatever your stance, there’s no denying that informal, casual conversations are harder to come by in a remote-first work environment.
Why is that?
The digital workplace offers no common workspace for passing-by, accidental camaraderie.
You know, the kind of conversations that have zero expectations, the kind you’d have in a break room. You can’t “run into” someone on Slack. You can’t overhear that conversation on a Zoom call. That water cooler chat about the hilarious new show on Netflix? Team bonding like that is extra hard when meetings exist only for work, not chitchat.
There’s just nowhere to go on coffee breaks — that is, to connect on a personal level with other remote employees in your company.
But what if you could replace physical communal spaces with digital ones?
By being intentional about providing spaces for employees to connect informally, you foster a culture of deeper connection, better collaboration, and ultimately greater productivity. In fact, even something as seemingly innocuous as building ice breakers into your meetings has proven, demonstrable benefits to your bottom line.
Here’s how to set up a virtual water cooler that everyone on your team will enjoy.
What is a virtual office water cooler?
A virtual water cooler is an online, digital solution for the “water cooler conversation” usually only present in a physical office. In a physical office, the water cooler conversation is what happens in the common physical spaces. These rooms and spaces usually have coffee machines, a water cooler (or some way to get H2O), and a refrigerator. They’re a great place to take a break, eat a snack, and casually hang out with (or without) co-workers, but there isn't an alternative for distributed, hybrid, or fully remote teams.
By creating a shared digital space intentionally designed for informal interaction, you can offer employees an avenue to better understand one another, catch up on events they may have missed, join in conversations (even asynchronously), share photos or stories, or even connect directly by voice or video conferencing.
How to set up a virtual office water cooler
1. Choose a collaborative, visual platform where your team can interact
To create a virtual water cooler, you'll need a virtual space to facilitate the conversation. You can use your internal messaging tool, a video conferencing tool, or other simple solutions. We use our own visual collaboration platform, MURAL, because it allows for asynchronous collaboration. That way, you can share everything in one place and there's no expectation for our teams around the world to join in the middle of the night.
2. Create areas for topics you’d like to include
The best way to facilitate conversations is by giving people a place to start. Create spaces in your water cooler whiteboard for things like company announcements, resources that might help new and experienced colleagues, and more. Here are a few examples to get you started:
Virtual water cooler ideas
Share those TV show and movie recommendations (Or find out what to watch!)
Like to read? So do your co-workers! Fill a virtual bookshelf and kickstart a casual book club
Fill a virtual fridge with your current favorite beverages (miss donuts?)
Got something else? Pass on new icebreakers, that GIF, TikTok video, tweet, or article
Check a calendar to see what holidays — and company events — are coming up
Announce something important — personal or company news. Whatever you want
Share photos of your recent trip
3. Invite and share with colleagues and collaborators
It’s not a party unless people show up! Make sure you spread the word, whether that’s in a messaging platform like Slack, or another tool that allows you to surface important links. Just make sure that you’ve allowed people you invite to make their own additions to the whiteboard, so the conversation can grow.
At the virtual water cooler, you can leave notes and comments and connect with your co-workers asynchronously. A virtual water cooler gives you that ability to learn about your teammates and build a little fun back into your distributed company — so share broadly!
4. Contribute asynchronously or schedule a water cooler break with your team
Virtual water coolers have the benefit of being flexible: you can share fun tidbits on your own schedule, or set aside some time with your team to add what you want to share and go over it together for a fun, video call happy hour.
Choose whatever option works best for your team—a team with coworkers distributed around the world will find it harder to meet at the same time, but it can provide some extra team-building if you can make it work.
Hybrid, remote, whatever — make space for imagination!
No matter whether your team is face-to-face, fully remote, soon-to-be-hybrid, or in some other collaborative setup, having shared spaces (and common ground) for teams to come together is more important than ever. So try this experiment. Make it your own by adding your own novelties, surprises, and company culture to it — like events, news, whatever. For example, an experiment we tried was inviting team members to casually QuickTalk in the mural — and have also thought about adding an always-on video call, which you could do through Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Google Meet / hangouts.
Whatever you do, find ways to build a collaborative company culture — no matter where work happens.
Give our “virtual office water cooler” a try and let us know what you think.