Only 12% of employees are willing to go back to the office on a full-time basis. For everyone else, the water cooler chat will have a completely different look and feel in the future—in both a virtual and hybrid office setting.
But what’s all this buzz around a water cooler that doesn’t physically exist anymore?
A water cooler symbolizes employees’ break time and an opportunity for them to get together and talk about all things non-work related. The traditional meaning of this place has been studied throughout the years in correlation with the effect it could have on employee productivity.
The conclusion? Taking frequent short breaks can improve people’s ability to focus and even avoid at-work injuries.
Safe to say, ditching the water cooler with our remote teams is not a good idea.
So what is a virtual water cooler?
A virtual water cooler refers to all casual interactions and talks employees have in between tasks. In a traditional office setting, employees would meet at the coffee maker, in the break room, or over a cup of tea. Digitally, this translates into fun meetups and chats via Slack, at the start of a meeting, or over lunch through a video call.
Virtual water cooler talks are crucial for the wellbeing of your team. They help maintain a solid balance between work and all the other little things that keeps us connected to world news and our friends, families, and passions.
Moreover, they hold higher importance for teams who don’t get to see each other in a physical setting. Virtual water cooler chats remind individuals that they’re part of a large team culture where one person can rely on the other’s help.
The benefits of creating virtual water cooler activities
First and foremost, virtual water coolers are an opportunity for the team to bond, brainstorm, stay inspired, and show compassion in trying times. Just think about your own life’s difficult situations. Would you rather deal with everything alone or have someone to talk to? This is where the true power of a “water cooler” setting lies—building “reciprocity in conversation” to balance out at-work conversations and make for more enjoyable duties.
In turn, supporting individuals as they cope with certain issues boosts your employee retention rates. A transparent work environment where people are free to bring up their problems or craziest ideas also promotes teamwork and increases trust. Not to mention the contribution this has to building a strong remote team culture and assisting your employer branding efforts.
Beyond the benefits of creating opportunities for your team to participate in virtual water cooler activities, simply allowing your team to take “microbreaks” [1-5 minutes] provides tremendous advantages. Among these, higher concentration, fewer injuries, improved overall mood, and less stress that could impact overall mental and physical health.
In this guide, we’ll have a look at what you need to do to get all of these benefits from your team’s virtual water cooler time and what activities you can support regularly.
Internal communication channels
The tools employees use daily to communicate will be the first victim of a monotone setting where all that’s discussed is work and more duties. Leaders can fix this through two simples steps:
- Create separate channels and thematic groups for the downtime talks.
- Encourage virtual water cooler conversation and organize engaging events.
Alternatively, you can have internal blogs or idea boards anyone can access and contribute to.
Shared board example to help team members get to know each other better
Host regular learning sessions
Have each team member be the host of a weekly or monthly event that suits their liking. They can share some of the funnest tricks from their industry or interesting facts they came across recently.
This will give everyone the chance to talk about what they’re most interested in and get to know more about one another. Cooking classes, movie history run-throughs, or even niches with fewer followers like astronomy or foraging will make for memorable learning experiences.
Team members should have a key list of takeaways at the end of each session. The host can follow up on things they’ve discussed so all parties can use this as a learning experience.
On top of this, it’s a good team activity that lets employees come up with unique ideas and innovate together. By providing a chance for new and existing hires to swap skills, you can use your in-house resources to train new recruits and have them develop their new knowledge in a fun setting.
Whether you’re hosting a work or non-work related learning session, there’s bound to be distractions from time to time. Use Krisp with your preferred video conferencing solution to automatically remove background noises that take away your and your audience’s focus.
Virtual happy hours
We’ve previously talked about how you can use virtual celebration ideas to engage your team, but did you know they’re a great way of making remote employees feel appreciated?
Any activity that breaks the routine is an instant happiness boost and can contribute to clearing stress away and refreshing a person’s focus.
Here are 5 virtual water cooler activities to incorporate into your happy hours:
1. Bucket list challenge
What better way to unwind than by getting to know more about your colleague’s dreams and goals?
Have everyone prepare a list of things they want to do or achieve in their life. Use the meetup to compare the bucket lists among each other and spot the ones that overlap. The real challenge is to get people with shared dreams to take one first step towards their goals together. As a leader, make sure to keep track of their progress too besides simply initiating a change.
Team members and managers can also contribute to making someone’s independent or difficult-to-achieve wishes come true. Talk about dreams becoming a reality!
2. Bingo time!
The rules are simple:
- Create your Bingo game and share it with your team.
- Decide on the timeline of the Bingo game. It can be a one-off experience over a team call or last as long as one or more months.
- Every team member will then cross off the list the thing they did or heard as present on the Bingo card.
- Reward the first players to complete a row [or more, depending on how difficult you want the game to be].
3. Trivia time
Who doesn’t love a good trivia game followed by a handy reward?
Keep the groups of participants to 4-10 people so everyone will get a chance to answer some of the questions. Stay away from trivia quizzes revolving around the company and its achievements. Instead, opt for non-work topics your team is interested in and incorporate fun facts about specific employees as well.
4. Personality tests
My personal favorite personality test is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. This virtual water cooler in particular can take up to an hour to complete as it requires a person to go through the nitty-gritty of their personality.
Call up a gathering for your team to take this test simultaneously. At the end, every person will get a detailed description of their personality. They can compare their own results to find teammates with similar traits or even the same exact results. I promise this will be the most fun you’ve had in a while.
5. Escape rooms
Yes, escape rooms can happen virtually and provide loads of unforgettable memories for your team. There are quite a few escape room ideas and games already available. You can also try one that’s hosted on Airbnb Experiences to mix in remote travel for the wanderlust souls in your team.
Clubs for everyone
Create separate channels or groups for team members who share common interests like reading, science, or movies. Build these clubs strategically so everyone can find something valuable in them.
The pitfall of having too many specific clubs is making people feel like they’re not welcomed into a club or like they don’t belong in any. Instead, opt for general hobby channels so everyone can be a part [and stay active!] of at least one or two clubs.
Safe ideas include movies and entertainment, vacations, gaming, sports, and even a parents’ club where colleagues can discuss the challenges and hilarious parts of parenthood.
Besides these water cooler talks, team members with unique pastimes can create smaller groups if they want to plan an event or get-together.
Online coffee and lunchtime
Why not host a cook-off challenge from the comfort of each person’s kitchen?
This will be a much welcomed change to the classic video call for lunch break. As a bonus, simply getting that face-to-face interaction that’s limited remotely will help teammates stay in touch and loosen up after a strong start of the day.
Over half of employees have actually met their best friends at work. 70% of them consider that having friends at work positively influences their day-to-day work life. Maintaining these relationships does require regular check-ins that managers need to facilitate at least 2-3 times throughout the entire week.
Hackathons and contests all the way!
Working alone from home can get lonely and it certainly takes a toll on everyone’s inventiveness. Set up a hackathon-like contest to help your employees return to their creative roots.
Get all teams to work on their preferred projects online at the same time while signed onto a video conference. Order food and supplies or gift bags for them just like you would for an in-person hackathon.
Stay away from work-related themes as much as possible. Impromptu hackathon ideas include “The craziest at-home project”, “The most interesting mood board”, or “Make us laugh! – Video contest”.
Opportunities like these keep everyone hooked on a common goal. They help them socialize in a more engaging way than debating everything over a written conversation or series of calls. And there’s no better way to build team trust than to get them to work on a project they believe in together.
Pair up team members from different teams for regular meet-ups
If work matters have their one-on-one meetings, water cooler time calls for a one-on-one fun chat.
Tools like Donut or WaterCooler automatically pair up members of different teams so they can meet up. Within medium and large teams employees can go months without getting to know everyone. Organizing these meetings helps them overcome shyness and connect with someone from a different department who might turn out to become their best friend in the future.
Watercooler ideas through Donut
Icebreaker time before meetings
Other virtual water cooler activities that help managers with their team bonding efforts are meeting icebreakers:
- Riddles or quotes
- This or that quizzes
- Polls and follow-ups on the results
- Word association challenges
- Open mic sessions
- Quick scavenger hunt contests
- The “Two truths and a lie” game
- Charades or “Guess the drawing” games
When time’s short, stick to one or two icebreaker questions instead. Check out our guide to running effective virtual meetings for an extensive list of icebreaker questions that can stir up a good laugh.
Create daily bonding opportunities to replace in-person team building games
Use these microbreaks to celebrate your people and their achievements. You’re probably already thanking your teams for their great results, but how about organizing entertaining team building activities—just because.
Once these become a habit, team members who were previously not that engaged in team activities will learn to step out of their comfort zones. Virtual interactions make it easier for introverted employees to find at least some team building games they would love to participate in. Activities where being on camera or speaking often isn’t required will still allow them to talk about themselves, learn more about each other, and bond with colleagues in a subtle manner.
Gradually, these team members will learn to be more outspoken and your team’s cohesion will get a solid push forward. After all, a strong team is built on all of its members. So diversifying the types of team building activities you organize will let everyone leave a mark and get their voice heard.
Consider having daily virtual team bonding opportunities beyond your video conferencing software. Think of the activities you had daily before switching to working remotely.
Used to ask your team about their goals or fun things they learned the previous day? Turn this into a Slack game where everyone can contribute and leave all nervousness aside.
Take into account your team’s interests or find out more about them by having every member share a picture of their home office, pets, favorite item in the house, or anything else that helps define their personality. Naturally, people with shared interests will talk to one another and form new relationships over things they wouldn’t get to discuss in a regular work-first setting.
Take the first step towards a healthier team
Remote work strongly impacts people on both a physical and mental health level. Most of the time, the effects are negative ones as people feel depressed and unmotivated at home. They also lose a lot of opportunities to get their 10,000 steps a day in as they’d otherwise spend moving around or towards the office—even if just for a commute.
As a leader, be the first to encourage healthy habits through weekly challenges like:
- Walk 5 miles or 7 minutes every day
- The daily workout challenges
- Cook your lunch for 2 weeks
- Join an online sports club
- Start an active hobby
- Meditate for 10 minutes every day
- The zero sugar shopping cart
- Get your sleep on!
- Share three positive affirmations with the team
Ready for your team’s next virtual water cooler activities?
I’m hoping that this extensive list has convinced you to incorporate these casual virtual water cooler ideas into your team’s daily routine.
Encourage virtual water cooler conversations and don’t be afraid to let your employees take short breaks every now and then. Not only will this help them stay productive without the pressure of a deadline, but they’ll be happier and healthier overall—something they’ll be forever grateful for.
Save this article and use these virtual water cooler ideas to create a sense of belonging in your team and build a remote culture worth being a part of.