With a shred of light beginning to show at the end of the COVID tunnel, many companies are concerned about how they will manage company culture not just for employees who will be returning to the office, but also for those who will remain at home. Company culture is impacted by a lot of different factors, and it incorporates many components across the continuum of the employee experience. While chat applications, video calls, and virtual events can all help to keep employees connected even while they’re distanced, those moments of informal communication or ‘water cooler conversations’ are often what team members miss the most.
Over the past several years, there’s been a significant shift towards aiming to deliver more and more elements of the employee experience ‘in the flow of work’. Josh Bersin coined the term in 2018 when he wrote about “Learning in the Flow of Work”. Streamlining the employee experience is undoubtedly important, but it doesn’t always provide space for the informal communication that is so crucial to driving employee happiness and belonging. As this is the first time many companies are dealing with remote and/or hybrid working on a wide scale, we’ve assembled some tips for enabling informal communication and connection for all employees, no matter where they’re based.
The crucial role that informal communication plays in company culture
Boston Consulting Group conducted a survey of 12,000 professionals across the U.S., Germany, and India last summer seeking to understand some of the early impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on employees. They found that respondents missed “being able to spontaneously walk to a coworker’s desk and discuss an issue” as well as “social gatherings at work”. In other words, they missed moments of informal communication. Interestingly, their level of satisfaction with their social connectedness with coworkers was highly correlated with their productivity when compared to before the COVID-driven transition to remote work. Employees who were satisfied with their social connectivity were 2-3 times more likely to report being as or more productive than before the switch to working from home.
In addition, both physical and mental health have suffered during the pandemic. Chatting with friends is scientifically proven to increase happiness, self-confidence, and self-worth, as well as reduce stress. It also helps to build resilience, belonging, and purpose. Employees can benefit from these improvements at all times, but especially now, when there is so much on everyone’s minds. Informal communication provides employees an opportunity to share their struggles and feel supported by a community of colleagues, without feeling that their comments may have an adverse effect on their career prospects.
How to foster informal communication for remote and flex work employees
In addition to the benefits listed above, opportunities for informal communication at work provide important time for cross-departmental relationship building, as well as the chance for junior employees to interact with and get to know more senior colleagues. It’s a crucial dynamic that makes employees feel more at home in and tied to your company, driving business outcomes like retention. Now that we’ve laid out all the reasons you need to cultivate moments of informality for all your employees, no matter where they work, let’s explore some strategies for doing so:
- Coffee chats. Connecting employees for one-on-one or small group sessions where the goal is simply to chat and get to know each other can help set an expectation that it’s okay to engage socially. New and/or remote employees are particularly at risk of feeling that they have to be always on and can’t risk chatting or they’ll be presumed to be slacking off while they’re not physically at a desk in an office. Scheduling chats like these will also help to build stronger relationships across departments and teams, making the whole organization more cohesive and productive.
- Drop-in rooms. Consider hosting a 24/7 conference room for which all employees are given credentials. The goal is to effectively provide a virtual water cooler space that employees can drop into to just take a breather. Historically, if employees had just finished a task or needed to step away from what they were working on for a moment, they could go to the kitchen or water cooler, and maybe encounter some colleagues along the way for a quick chat. Invite employees to treat the drop-in room in a similar fashion. While they will have to walk to their home kitchen to grab a drink first, they should feel free to bring it with them to the digital drop-in and enjoy it there with whomever else is in at the time.
- Dedicated culture spaces. Many organizations have culture channels and groups all mixed in with their other virtual workspaces. While this violates the ‘in the flow of work’ goal, we would argue that it’s actually better to separate out your culture and engagement initiatives into a separate space. The goal here is to have a dedicated place where employees can engage with all the things they love about the company and their colleagues, without it being surrounded by all of the things they’re stressed about. Part of the beauty of water cooler moments is that they give employees a chance to step away from the onslaught of responsibilities. Additionally, this enhances transparency and access to these initiatives across the organization.
Creating opportunities for informal communication is critical for organizations looking to maintain and build upon company culture for all employees. While this may be a bit more difficult when it comes to team members who are remote either all or part of the time, there are still plenty of strategies you can undertake to include them. We’ve listed a few above, but consider surveying or gathering some of your employees to ask them what approaches would most appeal to them/be most effective.
If the idea of a dedicated digital culture space appeals to you, we encourage you to check out Workrowd’s platform. We centralize all of your engagement and culture initiatives in one place, making it easy for every employee to get involved in the programming that most interests them from day one. You can find us online, or email us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.