Recreating “Water Cooler” Conversations in the #Virtual and #Hybrid Work World

Water dispenser in the room, front view

This is an excerpt from my new book The New Workforce: Productivity Through Virtual and Hybrid Teams. For additional ways of getting teams to higher performance in an online world purchase book here and please write a review:

When we worked in-person, the problem of the day was the main topic of conversation. As soon as we landed at the office, someone would ask, “Did you hear about the ERP system?” An emergency meeting invite regarding an angry large customer would appear as soon as we turned on our computers. As we poured our first cups of coffee, team members were huddled together in the cafeteria excitedly talking about the production line that went down.

The office setting provided many forums where team members could share what they knew about the challenge and explore together how it happened. Perhaps most telling, the gaggle of employees in the cafeteria was essentially an informal problem-solving session helping make sense of the current challenges. This was happening at the same time leaders were dropping into each other’s offices to carry out similar debriefs.

After going virtual, the first thing I noticed at our initial online meeting was that team members were no longer benefiting from those hallway and cafeteria conversations. This wasn’t surprising since the hallways and cafeterias were closed. Because the employees were working from home, they no longer had those important informal chats. Virtual employees were now making sense of the problem for the first time when I convened them for an initial meeting. …

I realized that I needed to re-create these pregame informal discussions in a virtual setting where teams hashed through the nature of the problem ahead of time. …  The first thing I do is jump onto one-on-one virtual calls with team members to get these conversations going. … I ask them a few pointed questions and make a number of suggestions:

  • I ask what the problem is and if they know its root cause. I also ask how they know this is the source of the problem.
  • I encourage them to initiate additional virtual live conversations with their peers.
  • I point out that exchanging ideas about the problem on collaboration software like Microsoft Teams or Slack builds understanding.
  • I suggest shooting off a few emails if they don’t have time for live conversations.

These methods spur teams into productive action in our online world…

This blog does not reflect the views of my employer


Published by Kevin Anderson, Dr. Organizational Design (OD)

Kevin Anderson is a leading expert in organizational design and performance, leadership, large scale change projects, business process engineering and talent and culture initiatives. Kevin has over twenty five years of experience in designing and delivering high impact, global organizational solutions. He is a Senior Organizational Development Consultant at Cargill where he leads efforts around team effectiveness, organizational design, culture and change management. Kevin diagnoses, proposes and delivers solutions in the Talent Performance domain. He has also created and rolled out Leadership Development and Organizational Development for the City of Minneapolis. Before that Kevin successfully worked with Accelare consulting health care, retail and university clients to create actionable strategic plans. In addition, he has served as an organizational development leader at Thomson Reuters working with legal, financial and scientific products. Kevin has a Doctorate in Organizational Leadership, Policy and Development and a Masters of Arts in Public Policy and Management from the University of Minnesota. His Bachelors Degree in Speech Communications and Political Science is from Macalester College.

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