Water cooler moments

We've been doing a little research to find out what they are, what people use them for and what they've been doing instead (or not! - not everybody misses them).

July 10, 2020

Like you, we’ve been busy trying to figure out how to work, where and who with during this next bit of the Covid thing. And we’ve been doing some ‘proper’ research too. I’ve dusted off my books, put on my best reading glasses and tried to remember how to do it.

I wanted to look into small talk. In particular, the ‘water cooler moment’. That moment that sometimes, but not always, features a water dispenser in the background, or a coffee machine, or a lunch queue, or a smoking shelter. That moment when things get said, hinted at or just spill out.That moment when something gets fixed, set in motion or set on fire.

These little conversations, it turns out, have many purposes. On our reading spree, Kris had her glasses on particularly straight one morning and stumbled across a researcher by the name of Antonia Dietmann who had just completed their doctoral thesis on social conversations at work.Her work is incredibly thorough (humblingly so!) and throws up some interesting links that she, and other researchers before her, have drawn between informal interactions and their ability to combat that pressing modern problem: loneliness. Bottom line: lonely people die sooner and in greater numbers.

On a lighter note, Dietmann also points out that informal work interactions encourage self-disclosure, which leads to others reciprocating with their own truths about themselves and what’s happening in their lives. Not surprisingly, the output of that is greater trust and deepened relationships… leading to improved team and work performance.

Fast forward 2 months to today and a few of the gang and me have a small scale study under way and we thought you’d like to hear what it’s thrown up so far. Here are the absolute highlights (quite raw but rather interesting):

Respondents: 70%female, 30% male.

What's that about? - still digesting. Possibilities being regarded with scepticism right now:

1.    Is our database very skewed towards female HR/L&D practitioners?

2.   Are women more inclined to respond to surveys?

3.   Are water cooler moments more useful or significant to women than men?


Nicola has been doing some amazing night time number crunching and here's what she found:

Of the database that we mailed (which contains 7,924 people that we're regularly in touch with) by looking at 4,400 records Nicola figured out that 59% are male and 41% female. We've never asked ourselves that question before (oddly!). So there looks to be a story there to look into... i.e. it's not our database that's skewed towards female professionals!


The 3 most popular uses of water cooler moments are:

1.    Having a laugh 67%

2.    Getting a quick update 63%

3.    Having a mental break 57%

Respondents said that the 3 most effective ways of making up for them in their absence are (from suggestions that respondents rated an 8 or greater for effectiveness):

1.    Specifically informal conversations by phone (no video)

2.    Sharing funny stuff and comments in chat panes on various platforms

3.    Adding extra time for chit chat before and after formal video meetings (one respondent termed it ‘people before technical’

The thing that has caught our eye in particular is the preference that people seem to have for telephone conversations without video. We’ve also read lots of comments that suggest that people really haven’t enjoyed the stand alone virtual coffee/drinks events and have found it more useful to tack on extra minutes before and after video meetings (in the true spirit of the unplanned water cooler moment?). It’s not to say that they haven’t worked at all but they have received low ratings from respondents.

So that’s the picture so far… more on the way.

We’re still looking for people who’d like to take part – how about you? The initial questionnaire takes 2-3 minutes (longer if you have lots of extra things to say – bring it on!). Phase 2 is going to need about 10 minutes of your week for about 6 weeks? Something like that…

I'd like to join the study.

Either way, I hope this post has prompted a few thoughts – do let me know by posting something on our social media and I will respond.

No items found.