Have you ever taken time at the end of the workday to reflect on what you actually did that day?
It seems like a given, but many people live their lives without paying attention to what they're actually doing.
This is often associated with the feeling of being on autopilot, which can have negative effects on even the most productive people.
So, what's the solution?
Believe it or not, it may come down to taking more breaks at work and participating in "water cooler chat."
Water cooler chat, or water cooler talk, or water cooler conversation (whatever you want to call it), is what happens when colleagues take a break from work-related tasks and discuss their hobbies, interests, and other things.
It's been occurring since the dawn of business, and for good reason -- it provides a necessary break from the action. This can happen in both physical and virtual work environments, but unfortunately, it gets a bad rap.
For a variety of reasons, many managers think that water cooler chat hinders workplace productivity. Instead of encouraging this practice (and understanding the benefits involved), they instead try to keep people on task by discouraging them from discussing non-work-related topics.
They may also limit employees' break time to something like two 15 minute breaks and a half hour lunch (a minute over, and you're getting written up!). Their intentions might be in the right place, but 99% of the time, they're completely missing the point.
You're doing a disservice to your organization if you don't allow water cooler talk. Focused water cooler conversation can help grow your business and build employee relationships ... so you should encourage it. When you allow employees to interact and converse about non-work-related topics, everyone benefits.
Do you wonder why water cooler talk is important in today's digital-centric world? Start here, and remember there are many more reasons, too.
A strong company culture often gets overlooked, regardless of whether your staff is working out of a physical office or a virtual office. A company is essentially a group of people who are working towards a greater good, and the more you can drive this home, the greater the potential for the company.
No business can grow without having a strong base of employee engagement and internal culture. Employees need to feel comfortable and confident for a positive company culture to develop. Culture is often born from shared interests, many of which have nothing to do with work. No matter how you cut it, water cooler chat helps enhance company culture by bringing people together on a more personal level.
Social anxiety is a real thing in the workplace. People who suffer from social anxiety often have difficulty conversing with others. This leads to communication breakdown ... which can then lead to missed appointments and a lack of focus. Even though you can't fix social anxiety over night, water cooler talk helps to bring people out of their shells. Let them mingle. This can be a major step in the right direction for those who choose to operate in their own corners.
Along with that, people often leave their jobs because they don't feel comfortable where they work, and water cooler talk is just one small thing that can help ensure this doesn't become an issue for your organization.
Turnover can be one of the most difficult things for CEOs and managers to deal with, especially when they've spent a great deal of time onboarding new employees. The more you can do to reduce turnover, the less headaches you're likely to encounter.
If employees are afraid or hesitant to talk with their managers, your business will suffer. Unfortunately, this is rather common in the business world. There are ways to rise above, and more often than not, casual conversation is the answer. People are more likely to open up when the conversation is about personal interests and not about work-related details. Water cooler chat is ideal for people to get more comfortable with managers.
In order for employees to work together on a project, there has to be trust and respect between them. One of the best ways to streamline collaboration is to have employees interact with each other on a more personal level. Allowing them to take breaks and discuss non-work-related topics can help enhance this relationship, ensuring they are comfortable with each other to collaborate and do amazing work.
Some people find it easy to work and collaborate with people they don't know. Others need a degree of shared personal interests for collaboration to be at its best. Getting to know someone before diving into complex tasks together can make a huge difference. Instead of structured "meet and greets," encourage employees to get to know each other during their downtime. As they build personal relationships, project collaboration becomes much easier.
Unsurprisingly, today's business leaders are looking for ways to improve workplace productivity. Some people feel that workplace chatter goes against productivity, but they're wrong. People need to chat with each other to destress and step away from their work now and then. When they return, they'll have a fresh mindset and be more productive.
Modern professionals are no strangers to workplace tension and stress, and it seems as if the potential for tension is greater as businesses become more successful. Tension is something that should never get in the way of a productive workday.
When staff members have an opportunity to relax and talk about their hobbies and interests (instead of crunching numbers and working against a deadline), stress starts to melt away.
A lot of managers and CEOs overlook the importance of keeping staff members healthy. A healthy employee shows up to work on time, maintains a positive mindset, and works to grow the company. Stress can have a huge impact on health, and taking time to forget about the workday is important. In a physical office environment, water cooler chat also promotes getting up and moving around, which is never a bad thing.
Coming up with great ideas can take a lot of work, and providing a platform for discussion can help speed up the process. Just because people don't constantly talk about work around the water cooler doesn't mean great ideas and solutions can't come as a result.
You might think your employees are discussing sports statistics (and they probably are), but the next thing you know, regular conversation can lead to the spark of a light bulb. Some ideas that come from water cooler conversation may even influence new products and services. It's a casual way to brainstorm and problem solve. This means your staff members are actually working when chatting around the water cooler.
There are many reasons why businesses embrace remote employees. Working remote creates possibilities that don't exist when people work in a physical office. But, remote workers are sometimes faced with certain challenges, too. For one, it can be difficult to get to know your colleagues when you don't get to interact with them face to face. Virtual water cooler chat in a social community is the logical and most effective solution to this problem.
Employee engagement levels can make or break performance within a business, regardless of industry. Improving employee engagement should be a top priority for anyone in a leadership position.
Give staff members time to decompress in the company of their peers. This type of camaraderie will help build friendship and trust between employees, which will ultimately improve morale and engagement levels in the workplace.
Employees that just show up and go through the motions are often described as disengaged employees. Everything falls apart when engagement levels suffer, yet it's a common problem for many businesses. Working against disengagement is a challenge. Fortunately, engagement rates will improve if you let employees relax and converse around the water cooler.
Managing employees isn't easy. The best way to get people to do good work is to gain their respect and show that you trust them. Most people are looking for a work environment that doesn't stress them out, so providing that will get you a lot of extra points. Respect levels will increase if you make it clear that you aren't going to police anyone. Let people take some time out if you want them to enjoy working for you.
There's a lot to gain by creating an environment where water cooler chat is comfortable and allowed. But as with anything else, there is some etiquette that employees must follow. It doesn't have to be strict, either ... just a set of guidelines so the conversation remains productive and doesn't devolve into negativity.
Set some ground rules. Employees will appreciate that. And present your guidelines in a way that doesn't emphasize hard and fast rules.
It's helpful to separate things into "do's" and "don'ts." Here are 8 ideas to get you started —
Water cooler conversation is a great way for people do discover common interests. Discussing hobbies and interests in casual conversation will cause interpersonal relationships to grow stronger. As long as they're appropriate, interests should always pop up in casual chat.
If you work in an office with a physical water cooler, space can become an issue. Sometimes, people just want to escape their desk for a few minutes to destress. They may not want to be a part of a conversation. Be aware of this and don't get in the way if someone just wants to be alone. Hogging the proverbial water cooler is never an attractive trait, and you can avoid it if you remain mindful.
Looking to get to know your colleagues better? Asking questions is the best way to achieve this goal. You can ask work-related questions, but you can also ask about what makes someone "tick" outside of work, too. Just remember that hyper-personal questions shouldn't come up if you don't know them well. In other words, keep conversation light and unobtrusive.
The number one side-effect associated with water cooler chat is is drama and gossip, hands-down. Even when people aren't trying to create company drama, a bad day can be all it takes for hurtful words to come out. Drama can become a real problem, and sometimes, it means having to fire someone to keep the peace. If you don't want to find yourself in this position, let employees know that you will not tolerate drama.
For a lot of people, workplace chatter is a form of therapy. This is beneficial and can help prevent disengagement ... but it's also more dangerous than you might realize. Personal problems can make people uncomfortable at work. If you're having problems at home, you'll do best to avoid talking about them in the office. Even if you're pressed to bring up things that are bothering you, think about how it could affect the company.
There are certain topics of conversation that people are sensitive about. Religion and politics come to mind. Discussing these subjects around the water cooler can create tension. Heavy topics are best left discussed in private and with people you know. As you might expect, the water cooler just isn't the time or place.
You might think it's a bad idea for employees to discuss aspects of the workday that don't appeal to them ... but it isn't. This is actually one of the best ways for productive ideas to come out. If your employees enjoy coming into work each day, they're going to do a better job. Don't ignore their concerns.
There's an unspoken rule in the business world ... money shouldn't enter the conversation between employees. Nobody wants hurt feelings, but this can happen if someone finds out they're paid less than someone else. If you're up for a promotion, you'll do best to keep it to yourself and let the company or your manager make the announcement. This is a dangerous road best left untraveled.
Water cooler chat is just as important (if not more so) in the digital age than in the past. The best managers already know it's beneficial, even if they have some apprehensions about it. So articulate a set of guidelines, and let people talk.
Tim is president and co-founder of Axero Solutions, a leading intranet software vendor. He's also a bestselling author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Mastering Employee Engagement. Tim’s been featured in Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur, CNBC, Today, and other leading publications.
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