Down the corridor, two workmates are standing (1.5 metres apart!) and casually chatting by the water-cooler during a quick break. Regardless of how we feel about this typical ‘water-cooler conversation’ scene, moments of incidental discussion and social interaction like this are highly valuable in the workplace and should be encouraged. Water-cooler chats support connection, positive organisational culture and productivity - and there are scientific reasons why.
How does this scene of workplace social interaction make you feel? Some of us may be naturally curious and drawn towards chats with peers, while others will want to turn around and 'avoid-avoid-avoid'. Depending on our own views and the dominant organisational culture, water-cooler chats can be judged in many ways.
For those of us who are more inclined to be introverted, the thought of making small talk can be cringe-inducing. For those who lean towards extroversion and draw energy from social interaction, water-cooler conversations can be invigorating. We are all wired to respond to social situations like this differently. Being aware of our natural response is a gateway to managing our workplace relationships and improving our performance at work. Importantly, senior management has a role to play in building a culture that supports and encourages face to face social connection as a means of building productivity, rather than mistakenly viewing it as time-wasting or ineffective.
How we respond to stimuli and social situations is largely governed by the neurotransmitters in our brain, like Dopamine and Acetylcholine. Dopamine is a ‘feel-good’ chemical in our brain that drives us to seek external rewards like public recognition and pay rises. Acetylcholine, on the other hand, is the neurotransmitter that motivates us to seek quietness, deep thought and reflection for long periods.
While we all have equal amounts of these neurotransmitters in our brains, dopamine is generally more active in the brain of someone who tends to be more extroverted. And, acetylcholine is generally more active in the brain of someone who leans towards introverted behaviour. This neuroscience helps us to understand why we have different reactions to stimuli like social interactions, crowds and spontaneous meetings.
Beyond the obvious benefits of supporting connection and relationship development, water-cooler chats are actually good for our brain and productivity at work too. When we chat with our workmates to get to know them better, we promote our brain’s executive function which enables us to make effective decisions, solve problems, think strategically and regulate our emotions.
A study by Professor Oscar Ybarra in 2008 at University of Michigan found that just ten minutes a day of friendly conversation can boost your ability to complete a range of cognitive tasks, but competitive conversation does not improve our performance.
Often, these friendly incidental chats can also lead to problem-solving around top-of-mind work issues too. In our recent ‘Learning from lockdown survey’, the top thing that respondents found did not support their wellbeing or performance at work was the reduction in face-to-face interaction (due to physical distancing and remote working). People suggested that the lack of ability to discuss problems on the fly and workshop ideas quickly was something that they missed.
As more Australians resurface into offices after periods of lockdown, workplaces are conceiving new policies and practices to support employees who are looking for a hybrid of workplace and remote work. A number of organisations have been recreating the water-cooler chat culture while working from home too.
Contemporary office spaces have been designed to promote shared environments that encourage meaningful workplace interactions, as well as offering quieter workspaces for meetings and deep work. With current COVID-19 safety requirements and physical distancing measures, these spaces are being managed differently. Not all employees are feeling 100% comfortable returning to work and social interaction in the context of COVID-19. Employers are obliged to manage both physical and psychological safety risks as we return to work – thankfully, there’s some great guidance available to prevent psychological injury.
Office spaces are likely to have a new role to play in supporting employee wellbeing and connection and might be reimagined and redesigned in the post-COVID era. This is particularly true for the growing number of employees who look to their workplaces for meaning and purpose and a sense of community that they may not have access to in their local neighbourhoods. The opportunity to interact casually with senior management also provides a great way to build rapport and idea-sharing across the organisation. Water cooler chats support the development of strong workplace relationships which improves productivity and help people to feel connected to the wider organisation and leadership.
Firms are beginning to conceive new approaches and cities are reshaping to support new modes of business. Space designers are giving consideration to factors like capacity, materials, traffic flow and touchless technology to support in-person collaboration. This is because many organisations already recognise how important it is to encourage social connection at work – both in-person and virtually.
If you’re mostly working from home, or the office space is not conducive to physically distanced in-person conversations, you may like to try some of these communication tips:
If you tend to be more introverted and find yourself over-stimulated, pay attention to those feelings and know that it’s OK to tell your peers how you feel. Saying something like “I enjoy talking with you, but I really need to go and focus on a task/project now” will allow you to politely excuse yourself.
There is plenty of evidence to support the value of social connection in the workplace. But, being aware of its value doesn’t always mean it’s easy to do! So, when you do get to chatting, you may like to try one of these low-risk workplace conversation starters:
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