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One of our recent hires gave me an interesting feedback during our last team retro: we lack water cooler moments. For context we're a 100% remote company - the largest based outside the US as I write this. And we mostly interact using Slack and Google Hangouts.

By water cooler moments, I mean those informal chit chats that normally occur when teammates take a break together and spend a few minutes - or much longer - to chat about random topics. They help trigger and diffuse ideas and information across an organization, allow team members to know each other better and coalesce as a whole, and sometimes turn into hour-long chats around multiple coffees to get extremely productive work done.

My reaction then was to state what then seemed somewhat obvious to me. Namely, we've a couple of non-work related Slack channels within the organization, and I'm perfectly fine with the team taking the time to get to know each other better by doing more Hangouts here and there so go right ahead and do then.

But come to think of it, it was not obvious. There likely is more to it and I'd like to make sure the topic will not come up again. What are the best ways to promote this type of informal chit chat behavior when dealing with teams of fully remote workers?

Edit / Clarification: a company-wide hangout or an enormous slack channel to spew out noise is absolutely not what I'm wondering about. And we have all of those things in place already, in point of fact. This is about encouraging short hangouts during which coworkers have opportunities to get to know each other better.

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    most of my people are 100% remote, I have never seen a need for social chit chat or anything non work related. Why is it causing an issue? What do you expect to achieve? – Kilisi Dec 13 '15 at 1:04
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    @Kilisi I think it is important because people get to know each other, and such channels sometimes act as stress busters. :) – Dawny33 Dec 13 '15 at 3:54
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    @Kilisi: Per the question. For one thing, it's human to want to know your coworkers - i.e. good for morale and company culture. For another, it's a great way to diffuse ideas and information. And perhaps most importantly, it's a great way to solve problems through out of the box thinking. – Denis de Bernardy Dec 13 '15 at 6:21
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    or a great way to waste time I'm paying for... thanks for the info though, I'll look into it. – Kilisi Dec 13 '15 at 8:49
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    @Kilisi - the social aspect seems like it can become distracting noise, but I miss the learning I get when I see how others use the our common tools. Collaboration is awkward, at best. – thursdaysgeek Dec 14 '15 at 16:35
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+50

This is a great question and one I'm sad I missed earlier. I also work with an international team that is completely remove.

Realistically, a lot of this is going to come down to the people. It sounds like you are looking for more of an informal thing, which is "formalized" in a way that it is ok to happen.

First, one important consideration is for management to realize that employees often will feel that "watercooler" moments are wasting time. This is important because people will not really feel comfortable taking say 3 hours a week to dedicate to watercooler activities otherwise. When you are remote, this feels more "real" than spontaneous office watercooler conversation, because you have to deliberately participate.

There are multiple ways to approach this. Some can be "sponsored" by the management and some can be grass-roots by the employees.

Employer driven

The management team/project leads can encourage this in a lot of ways. Nothing here is a "golden bullet" - everything when it comes to relationships and informal conversation is going to be specific to the individuals.

Given your user profile suggests software industry, some things I've seen be successful:

  • Longer retros with looser agendas. Retros can turn into complain-fests. It turns out this is actually an easy way to build camaraderie. Depending on how the retro is run, you could have a "non-actionable complaints" or a "non-actionable successes" categories to discuss. Encourage people to put things like the weather, or other non-work things into that. Take initiative as a leadership team, whether team lead, manager, scrummaster, whatever.
    • You can use this to ask questions for clarification about people's lives (in a non intrusive way) if you want too.
  • Introduce pair programming or other more collaborative things. Some people hate pair programming. Some people love it. If people like it, it provides opportunities to have non-work conversation as part of it.
  • Have employer sponsored knowledge share sessions about hobbies, interests, etc. A previous team I worked on had a "10 minutes of fame" presentation that could be about... anything. Someone gave one on homebrewing. Some might be work related. These can be great but may require "sponsoring" in the sense of management promoting this is ok.
  • Buddy lunches. We have a remote employees networking group that coordinates buddy lunches (though no lunch involved haha) to connect different remote workers together, by providing a talk sheet for everyone to talk through.
  • Provide webcameras or software to do video conferences. Make sure your team has the ability to do video conference. Seeing a person builds relationship and triggers this more often.
  • Hackathon like ideas. Give everyone a day a month to "fix some really annoying problem" or something like this. It'll help raise morale and you will quickly learn if it's a meaningful way to cause this conversation. An entire day dedicated to solving random things (even if not work related) should go a long way.

The main point here with all of this is to:

  1. From a company perspective, make sure that this is seen as "ok" for your team (especially if they are hourly and not salaried).
  2. Be flexible with timelines/etc. Don't add a bunch of "non value add" activities (which is what a lot of people will see them as) if you don't accept some initial reduction in overall delivery, etc.

Employee driven

In addition to the above, things you can do as individual employees:

  • Ask about watercooler things. Ask about "any fun weekend plans?" etc. I do this very intentionally with my team because it helps feel more watercooler. When you don't see someone in person for months (or ever) it helps make them into a real person to know information, however superficial, about them.
  • Have real life meetups. If you can afford it, have the ability to meet as a team in real life. This will help a ton as it will trigger more meaningful relationships. More meaningful relationships naturally cause watercooler conversation.
  • Care about your coworkers. So one thing that is obvious, but worth stating - if your teams don't actually, legitimately care about each other and are so business focused they don't give this value.. none of this will work and everyone will resent you. This will vary based on the team, but it's an important thing to note.
  • Have video calls instead of only IM/phone. It's amazing how much more willing and able I find myself to have 'off topic' conversation when having a video call instead of IM/phone call.

Takeaway

There really is no easy "one size fits all" answer to what you are asking. Each team dynamic will be slightly different.

The above should help build relationships between your team and that is what helps these sorts of informal, spontaneous conversations you are looking for.

You can't fake spontaneousness nor can you fake trust and relationship. When working with a remote team, you need to take a very deliberate approach to all of those.

18

We are also mostly a remote organization. Some in India, some in London, USA, Ukraine, etc. Not 100% remote, but fairly remote.

We have a channel named #watercooler on Slack, which is only meant for informal chat. And this is the description of the channel. (I literally copy-pasted this from the channel):

Shittiest of Jokes only

No one is allowed to leave the channel, as it is for knowing each other better and having fun.

In the beginning, no one used to interact there, and it used to look pretty deserted. This is because people thought that the seniors would think that people are wasting time and becoming counter-productive, but it is not actually so.

So, one day the founders and the top management in the organization started creating a racket in the channel, during the lunch time break at their London office; and that's exactly when people felt comfortable sharing jokes and having informal conversations in the channel.

So, lead by example. People might feel a bit uncomfortable at first. But, when the activity is going on in the channel, more of them would join.

  • We've a couple of channels like that already. The problem is scale: the noise level across 10+ timezones can invite users to leave or mute them - and rightly so, since you otherwise end up with a constant stream of distractions. Plus, my hunch is the issue has more to do with doing more hangouts (1:1 or in small groups) with people you work often with. – Denis de Bernardy Dec 13 '15 at 6:32
  • @DenisdeBernardy Yes, noise is always there, especially when so many timezones are included. We also have separate channels (like #London, #Gurgaon, etc); so maybe time-zone specific channels in addition to the regular chat channel should do. Hangouts help too, but they turn out to be more noisy than they actually seem. (We have geek-talks on Hangouts every Friday for an hour, where one person gives the talk on anything related to tech, and it also helps.) But, we found the Slack technique more effective :) – Dawny33 Dec 13 '15 at 6:48
  • Still, a company-wide hangout or an enormous slack channel for noise is absolutely not what I'm wondering about. And we have all of those things in place already. This is about encouraging small/short hangouts during which coworkers have opportunities to get to know each other better. – Denis de Bernardy Dec 14 '15 at 8:58
  • "This is about encouraging small/short hangouts during which coworkers have opportunities to get to know each other better." I think @Dawny33 's example of the founders leading by example in their Slack channel is a key to encouragement. – Robert Dundon Dec 17 '15 at 15:28
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    @DenisdeBernardy My point is that Dawny33's main suggestion is not a company wide channel. The main suggestion is for company leadership to initiate informal engagement in whatever formats you're comfortable with. – Eric Dec 18 '15 at 18:02
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The "Friday Fika" used at help scout looks like worth trying:

"Friday Fika is a weekly 15-30 minute break to talk with a randomly chosen person on the Help Scout team."

"Friday Fika addresses the fact that birds of a feather do tend to flock together—people usually hang out with those in their own department. Fika brings folks across teams face-to-face to talk about life, the universe, and everything.

The topics of discussion can run the gamut and don’t require structure, but I’d recommend setting a kickoff topic for each week so it’s easy to break the ice"

Source: http://www.helpscout.net/blog/remote-team-connectivity

  • some kind of "obligatory" weekly call to know a new people on the organization, I really like this idea. – eLRuLL Dec 18 '15 at 20:51
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From what I've seen, many remote-only organizations will provide physical gatherings paid for by the company. Usually between 1 and 4 times annually.

It seems to me these sort of gatherings would develop more intimate relationships in the team, which would then foster more water cooler moments online. A sort of positive feedback loop.

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    With one employer, I was sent a couple of times to a "Technology Leadership Conference". The agenda had lots of break and lunch time relative to sessions, which was good because the main point was casual meetings among people who worked together remotely. It was great matching faces to voices I had heard on the phone. – Patricia Shanahan Dec 14 '15 at 23:03
  • @PatriciaShanahan - IMO, few meetings a year don't do much to build strong bonds in a 100% remote team. Is better than nothing, but its is like putting band-aid on a gash. – MasterJoe2 Nov 18 at 1:40
  • @MasterJoe2 My experience is that a few face-to-face meetings make the weekly phone meetings and on-going e-mail communication more effective. They would not be useful as the only communication. – Patricia Shanahan Nov 18 at 3:50
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This issue of bonding is the single most important issue with remote teams. People bond better in person than online, and they bond better when they can see faces than not, and they bond better when they hear voices than not.

Given these facts, I suggest you challenge your people to take on the following small project. Call the project "How can we best get to know each other as complete human beings?"

You come up with the design constraints -- their answers can't take up more than 15 minutes a day, it should prioritize faces and voices, it should allow people to talk informally in large and small groups.

Then you ask your team for ideas. Each idea will be tried out for X number of days or weeks. Once they've all been tried, people can continue using whichever they like most. That's the winning idea.

EXAMPLES:

  1. Have the whole team take part in a video conference 15 minute huddle daily. Someone leads this meeting using the "scrum" approach for daily huddles. Include in the agenda a brief period where people share some personal victory.

  2. Set up a corner of the office by your water cooler where a webcam is always on (post a sign! and have a monitor showing the camera's field of view!) and there's a permanent conference going on. Anybody can wander over, get some water, and chat with whoever is doing the same thing at the remote location(s).

  3. Set up "water cooler encounters" as semi-random 10-minute meetings between pairs of people -- stick these on their calendars and tell them to take a break and chat with whomever they got paired up with. If they are techies (or socially awkward), prepare them with some simple open-ended questions. Give a little workshop on how to conduct small talk, so they're prepared. (I think this might be like "Friday Fika" above.)

  4. Less frequently have team meetings where the members each have a turn to express something about themselves. Maybe it's "my personal definition of good work" or "what sort of work most feeds my soul." Over a year they'll learn each other more deeply.

  5. Create a commonalities matrix, with team members in columns and topics in rows -- topics like 'motivators' and 'number and age of kids' and 'education' and so on. If two teammates discover they each went to a Montessori school as kids, they'd each list "Montessori" in their column on the 'education' row. Over time everyone will find some things they have in common with the other members of the team.

The GOAL here needs to be for your people to get to know each other at the "mammal" level, not intellectually but at the level of the higher emotions that take place in the Limbic part of the brain -- where trust, love, and fun are located. (This is a different area than the Amygdala -- where anger, fear, and hunger are located.)

Over time you'll see which approaches are working because people will keep using them.

(NOTICE that I'm suggesting you be the person who guides the group through brainstorm and discovery, not be the one who comes up with the ideas. You need to preserve your strength and tap the group's collective genius. ALSO notice I didn't answer your question directly. You asked for water cooler moments, but what you actually need are ways for people to bond informally. Don't be too attached to any one method of achieving your true goals.)

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    I should add that social media style tools like Slack, IM, etc. are WEAK at building the emotional connections because of the lack of face and voice exposure. – Thomas Cox Dec 15 '15 at 21:42
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I haven't seen anyone address the awkwardness felt by remote employees, but believe this is critical to understanding the dynamic at play.

Its about context

I work remotely much of the time. When working on a project in my spare time I don't feel a need to constantly prove myself on "official priority" type items, but instead pick whatever I think advances the project (and my) goals the most. That might mean writing documentation, or even working on tools or language resources that aren't directly a part of the project (writing a tutorial on a strongly related API, or some necessary but otherwise obscure technique on a personal website, for example -- this is doubly true in the semi-invisible not-quite-FOSS community dev landscape in Japan). I can't get fired, feel no stress here and am doing things because I want to. I regularly wind up in off-topic chat with people I've met in various language or project communities, and occasionally gotten to know a few folks well who continue to stay in touch with me long after one of us has split from a given community.

Its different at work, though, especially remote work. There is usually a subtle, constant pressure in the back of one's mind to "prove" that you're "really working" when its all remote. Different teams subconsciously give off a different vibe on this point. Working remotely feels less secure in this way most of the time -- and that is because it really is less secure. Working remotely you are far more likely to be let go than if you walk in to the same building as the CEO every day unless you're the only guy who knows how to manage critical system X. That is to say, unless you're the reason that the bus factor approaches 1 working remotely is always going to feel a lot less secure than working in person. Working remotely still often feels like a privilege (even in 2016) -- not only the one that feeds your family but also (for many) the one that allows you to even live with your family.

Given the difference between the two contexts, its scary to be seen in "idle chat" instead of constantly making commits or reaping tickets or whatever -- even on trivial busywork or contrived issues -- because the stakes for being taken for a slacker are so high when the work is remote and you actually depend on that job. These effects are doubled when there is a sense that the management views workers as interchangeable components of an organizational lego figure than as unique individual people who each have their own way to contribute to the company's effort and independent take on the company's vision and future.

Dat vibe

Why would people get that feeling? Consider what happens when an eager worker is told, however politely, to "stay in their lane". On an open source project if you really think the cause of low adoption is a lack of documentation about feature X, you don't passively drop hints about it in IRC -- you do something if you have the time and inclination. You start writing documentation for feature X, blog about it, give a presentation about it, write a book about it, talk about it, and otherwise try to attract attention to the project and the great-but-hitherto-unwieldy feature. I've seen many cases in work environments, however, where a lowly minion observed that product adoption was low because of a lack of documentation or some other peripheral resource that was not their direct responsibility, and were rebuffed when they expressed an interest in improving this area of the customer/user experience.

When this happens in-person the blow of rejection is cushioned a good bit by the body language that frames the reaction. When this happens remotely it is very easy to take a direct text sentence in chat from a manager or team leader the wrong way -- or worse, not really know which way to take it. In the best case the worker may feel that they are being told to stick to a higher company priority based on demonstrated skillset, at worst they may begin to fear that the rejected suggestion made them appear to be distracted, uninterested in their own work or otherwise a bad fit for the team in the mind of the manager. The common lack of constant interpersonal reassurance in remote work can make people gradually feel more awkward over time without a bit more stroking ("lack" here being lack of facial contact, body language, casual-but-positive encounter in the hallway, etc.).

Now back to the watercooler thing. How much time is enough? How much time is too much? How burned out are your workers already? How well do they get along? How well can they get along? What private interests, present or past, intersect among various workers? You can't know any of these things, so there are definite limits to trying to force watercooler moments. There is a fine line between "mandatory fun" and "additional workload".

The "Approved Tools" dictate the environment

I haven't used Slack (yet), but have used Google Hangouts, Skype, IRC, Campfire, some homebrew systems, and a few other services in remote companies. The places where informal, spontaneous chat among remote workers was most common were in flexible, ephemeral systems like Skype, IRC, one chat system that was actually based on a MUD (for real -- also, surprisingly effective), etc.

Why?

Because in such systems it is easy to ping any arbitrary number of people for ephemeral, unlogged, boss-invisible communication, and doing so was seen as integral to the work process, not something that needed to be controlled and channelized by the management. Systems like Campfire and Google Hangout company accounts were the least effective at inspiring spontaneous communication. I'm not quite sure why, but part of it was that they were things I only interacted with for serious business and they were logged forever as company property. Jokes that were funny 10 years ago when the team was 10 people may later be regarded as coarse or radically insensitive -- values dissonance can be a tricky thing in a long-lived, geographically diverse team. Do we really want to log every snarky comment that may lead to productive banter about Issue X?

Logging in to the VPN, showing my presence on my "work" Skype account, changing my activity timer on Campfire, changing my status thingy on Google Hangouts, etc. was a matter of proving that I was actually actively participating in work that day. Even installing Google Hangouts feels silly when its something you never would have used personally if given the choice. I've spoken with other folks at one particularly poisoned environment I worked at in the past about this and they had the same feeling: flipping the presence indicators on all the officially sanctioned and mandatory "social" tools was a ritual that prepared one to exist in Big Brother Is Watching mode. This sort of puts a damper on "off-topic" (aka "genuine") social interaction across official channels.

The solution

I don't know that there is a solution to this, because I don't know that there is really a problem. That said...

As a leader, when I need some social glue to fill in the gaps of interpersonal cohesion among teammembers I both try to generate it myself as much as possible (sometimes tricky) and also try to find signs of it emerging naturally and capitalize on them. Show interest in some peripherally related issue someone makes a side-comment about, even if you're just batting back; chances are someone else is interested in it, too. This is a delicate art, almost like trolling, but the idea is to demonstrate by example that The Management isn't opposed to a bit of side chatter and expose the interests of some team members to the rest of the group. In the proper environment (reference the wall of text I wrote above) the natural chemistry between people will eventually bring them into their own social orbits. You have to keep an eye on all that, but not too close an eye or you risk spoiling the soup.

As with almost anything, there is no recipe for success in this area but there are many formulas for failure.

2

You need to use many different watercooler channels, to avoid information overload. I do not think grouping by time zone makes sense - it does nothing towards ensuring that colleagues who need to work together get to know each other.

I suggest instead that whenever a project starts the project leaders should create a watercooler for that project, and seed it by posting casual messages themselves. Similarly, try to identify groups who communicate a lot about work - active mailing lists, regular phone meetings and the like - and have their leaders create and seed channels.

Make sure the channels are not too rapidly interactive. For example, use mailing lists rather than chat rooms and instant messaging. That way, people who are busy can participate when they happen to be waiting for something to happen, and time zones will be less of an issue.

2

You could try promoting monthly AMA (ask me anything) sessions on Hangouts or even on chat rooms. It would allow people to know each other in a pretty fun way.

Something like: http://www.reddit.com/r/AMA/

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