Have you ever taken time at the end of the workday to reflect on what you actually did?
Surprisingly, many people live their lives without thinking about what they're doing.
We're so often in a constant state of autopilot, which even the most productive people fall prey to. We get stuck in routines, deadlines, and mindlessly move through the motions to get it all done.
This is not a way to be. So, what's the solution?
Believe it or not, taking more breaks at work in what we like to call "water cooler chat" helps a lot.
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 and socialize with each other. It's a chance to let everyone reset by talking about less stressful things, like hobbies and personal interests—fun topics not associated with work.
Water cooler chat has been happening well before the invention of the water cooler, and for good reason—it gives humans a much needed break from the next task. Every company can do it, regardless if employees work remotely or in a physical office everyday. But unfortunately, the water cooler chat gets a bad rap.
Some managers think that water cooler chat hinders productivity in the workplace. Instead of encouraging this practice (and understanding the benefits involved), they try to move work forward by discouraging breaks.
They also tend to limit employees' break time into short intervals, 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 not building a more productive and engaged staff. In fact, they're adding to common workplace stressors, which lowers morale and the quality of work.
The beauty of the water cooler chat is that everyone, at some point, needs it. People are not machines. They are human. Water cooler conversations gives your employees the freedom to take casual breaks, enjoy each others company, and regroup. This will grow your business and build employee relationships. Everyone benefits.
Are you wondering why water cooler talk is important in today's digital-centric world? Start here and remember there are many more reasons, too.
These days, a strong company culture is important. In fact for some employees, it's a stronger motivator than salaries and raises. It also unifies your company, which is essentially a group of people working towards a common goal or a greater good. The more you can drive this home, the greater the potential for your company.
No company culture can thrive without strong employee engagement. That is where water cooler talk comes in. Incorporate it into your culture by encouraging employees to enjoy their time working, learning, and growing in your company. What so many leading companies have in common is employees who feel supported and empowered. No matter how you cut it, water cooler chat enhances 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 can have difficulties opening up and conversing with others. This can cause communication roadblocks, which can lead to missed appointments and low focus. Although you can't fix social anxiety over night, water cooler talk gives people the gentle nudge to break 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.
People leave their jobs when they don't feel comfortable where they work. Water cooler talk is a small, but powerful thing that can build comfort, support, and stronger employee retention in your workplace.
CEOs and mangers do not want high turnover. Finding new hires and onboarding them takes time, money, and energy that's wasted when employees leave. Ensure this doesn't become an issue for your organization. Create an environment that boosts productivity and happy employees, so you get the best versions of everyone on your staff.
If employees are afraid or hesitant to talk to their managers, your business will suffer. Unfortunately, this is common in the business world. Water cooler talk breaks down the barriers between team members and management by connecting everyone on a personal level. People are more likely to open up in situations like this and feel comfortable addressing professional issues in the future. Water cooler chat is ideal for people to get more comfortable with managers.
In order for employees to successfully work together on a project, there has to be mutual trust and respect. One of the best ways to streamline collaboration is to have employees interact with each other on a personal, human 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 things.
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 chatter in the office means people are goofing off—but they're wrong. People need to chat with each other to de-stress and step away from their work now and then. When they return, they'll have a fresh mindset and get more done.
Modern professionals are no strangers to tension and stress in the workplace, which can can grow as businesses expand and become more successful. Tension is toxic and drains productivity, workflows, and even top performing employees.
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 mindful mindset, and grows the company. Stress can have a huge impact on mental and physical health, and taking time to take a break from the workday is important. In a physical office environment, water cooler chat also compels people to get up and move around, which is never a bad thing.
Coming up with great ideas can take a lot of work, and providing a platform for discussion helps 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 or TV (and they probably are), but the next thing you know, regular conversation can spark a mental light bulb. Some ideas that come from water cooler conversation can even influence new products and services. It's a casual way to brainstorm and problem solve. This means your staff members can be contributing to the company while engaging in a water cooler chat.
There are many reasons why businesses embrace remote employees. Working remotely creates possibilities that can't happen when people work in a physical office. But, remote workers are sometimes faced with specific challenges, too. For one, it can be difficult to get to know your colleagues when you don't 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 can make or break performance in 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 with 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 disengaged employees. Everything falls apart when engagement levels suffer—and although disengagement is harmful to every company, it's a common problem. Fortunately, water cooler talk is an easy element you can implement into the workday. You can improve engagement 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 becomes stronger 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 de-stress. 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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