With this simple setup, we completely overhauled our remote culture. It was such a simple thing to start, with dramatic and lasting effects on our team's cohesion and culture.
This article provides the background, and a guide to setting up your own watercooler.
Failing at building a remote culture
We’ve been building and running experimentation and conversion research programs for mid-size and enterprise clients for almost 10 years now, but we’re still a small-ish team. Around 35 of us in the Speero agency with more team members in other branches of the broader CXL family.
We’ve been using Slack and Zoom for what feels like forever, so when covid hit we thought we’d be fine moving to a fully remote setup. We were wrong. Very wrong.
Covid hit our culture hard. We weren’t prepared and we suffered the typical burnout, team churn, lack of motivation, etc.
Even though we were used to the tools for communicating across our global teams prior to Covid, it had worked because 90% of the team had an office to go to build up relationships with their colleagues face to face. We lacked a mechanism that replaced those team connection moments.
There is something magical about sharing a moment with a coworker and learning something interesting about them. While stirring cream into your coffee your longtime work friend tells you they have a twin sibling, or you learn the ‘by the book’ supervisor was in the circus for 5 years.
The watercooler isn’t so much a specific area, it’s an idea. A place to get away from your desk and to get a refresh of both body and mind. The magic lives in the moments where teammates interact with one another, in search of that refresh. A quick chat with a cup of coffee can bring the day right back into focus with a more positive outlook for tasks ahead. We form closer relationships by sharing ‘who’ we are with each other in these unmeasured and spontaneous micro-meetings.
Video call meetings are closest to a direct replacement to the office-based version but tend to be quite disruptive and awkwardly forced. Asynchronous updates can also work, but lose the natural cadence of conversation that creates reciprocal sharing to builds teams or increases morale.
Enter #watercooler. A communal channel within your communication layer that is more than a “silly or off-topic” channel. #Watercooler is a place to unwind and get to know those who you spend more time with than your family, but may never meet in person.
Distributed workforces have to think about their communications layer as their ‘office’. A product team and a research team siloed into different Slack channels is the same as having the research lab and the testing facility on different floors of a building. They have different ‘break rooms’; different ‘watercoolers’. Micro teams and tribes form within these areas and friction can build between teams.
In office situations, these friction points are mitigated through team-building exercises and interdepartmental projects. Distributed workforces have a different, yet equally difficult problem. Projects, teams, and departments all need ways to communicate that would typically be handled through face-to-face communication in an office environment.
In a distributed workforce, these moments have a difficult path. Everyone has their own coffee station, their own individual ‘watercooler’. There is no communal space where information can be shared and a team can be built.
What do our team actually think about our watercooler?
How to set up a watercooler
You will need a;
- Communication tool/channel e.g Slack #watercooler channel
- A list of questions - we use an Airtable database of questions with a submission form for new submissions.
- Pro tip: Zapier to automate the whole thing
The concept is easy. Probe the team for questions that they would like to ask each other, keep those questions in a database and then pose those questions to the team at a regular time, each day to build up a habit. So much so your team looks forward to it every day and misses it when they are out on holiday. We missed you too Emma.
At Speero we use Slack for our communication layer and Airtable for our data layer. These two programs speak to each other very well so we populate Slack with a new question at 5 AM EST each day drawn from the Airtable database of questions. Depending on the distribution of your team you should change this time to the 2nd cup of coffee people are getting. Usually, around 10 AM or so, after they have answered all their emails and did the work of getting ready for work.
You can appoint a watercooler champion that collates and posts questions each day, or you can automate the process using form inputs and APIs. We started with one person populating the questions, then moved to a database of questions submitted by the team, and now have an automated process where the questions are pulled from the backlog of questions and sent to Slack using Zapier.
We have learned this was a communication tool we needed at Speero. Since implementation, our engagement and happiness metrics have increased month over month and our overall team morale has noticeably improved. Our engagement in this channel is 100% higher than our next channel, which is a general announcement channel. We have created a virtual space that allows for those ‘in the wild’ conversations which help us build our team cohesion.
Create a watercooler automation using Slack and Airtable
1. Create a #watercooler channel within Slack
Or your communication tool of choice.
2. Create an database of questions
You can use Excel, Google Sheets, or whatever data layer you like. We use Airtable - here is an example with questions. We created a simple form for the team to submit their questions, which creates a unique ID for each entry.
If you need some inspiration you can use our questions from the example above or Google things like "company icebreaker questions", for inspiration.
3. Create criteria to order the questions
Depending on your team size, number of questions etc. you might want to add come criteria or sorting mechanism so that questions get asked in a certain order. We use a unique ID that then sorts the ideas into a pseudo random position, each day resorting with new entries added. But you could also consider criteria to ensure the same person's questions don't get asked in succession or that different topics are mixed together to avoid repetition.
4. Set up an automation to share data between tools
Every day at 5AM Airtable grabs the first record from our database of questions and marks the ‘posted’ column with today's date. We then used a Zapier integration to send the question data to the “topic description: in our Slack channel.
While you don’t need the automation or the form to get the watercooler started, the more you use these systems, the more routine they become and you will be surprised at how quickly you begin looking forward to the daily watercooler questions.
While on the surface this seems like a simple thing to set up, keeping it going with regularity and encouraging engagement are needed to make it valuable. It's made a real difference to our team and we've all learnt alot about each other.