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The ‘watercooler’ myth

A couple of weeks ago, during an ACEVOFest online session about the future of the workplace, Debra Allcock Tyler (chief executive at the Directory of Social Change) mentioned in the chat that the ‘watercooler moments’ in the office are a myth. We asked her to write a blog to expand on this topic.

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I often hear senior leaders who argue against remote working talk about the loss of ‘watercooler moments’.  But I’ve come to believe those moments are a bit of a rose-tinted myth.

I have to admit that I was one of those CEOs who was very much of the mindset that office is best for productivity and relationships. However, since the pandemic forced the DSC team to work remotely my view has completely changed. 

One of the things I’ve realised is that those much-lauded watercooler moments often turned into watercooler whinges where someone started a moan and it propagated!

When ACEVO asked me to write this piece I consulted with our DSC staff and asked them to share with me what they remembered as the downside of office-based work.  Some of the things they said:

  • It’s easier for less gregarious folk to feel isolated. There are more likely to be cliques because people, understandably, have their close work-mates who they hang out with. 
  • The physical separation of teams, even in a shared office, veered people towards more silo thinking. 
  • The them-us divide between managers and staff is more obvious as managers might have offices or particular desk spaces that are clearly theirs. 
  • It’s obvious what meetings people are not involved in which sometimes meant they felt excluded. 
  • You can instantly tell when managers have had a row about something by the stormy look on their faces as they stomp back to their desk after a meeting. 
  • You rarely see your CEO or senior Directors who are often either not in the office or holed up in a meeting somewhere.
  • People turn up at work tired and grumpy because they had a crap journey into work which is contagious.
  • Staff regularly complain about the smell of other folks’ food or the mess on or around their desks. 
  • It’s very obvious when someone is chatting or gossiping.  If you have to concentrate on a piece of work it’s hard to drown out other folks noise and chatter – and too easy to get distracted if you overhear a colleague talking about something you’re interested in. 

When we started working remotely, with a bit of work, all of that stuff disappeared.  I have to say that my team are big fans of remote working.  Although of course there are things they miss there are many more things that they value.

For starters it’s harder to be cliquey when you only see folk online.

We have a flatter feeling organisation even though the structure hasn’t changed, because our staff see our leadership team every single day, including Directors and the CEO.  We all, regardless of job role, log into an organisation wide Zoom call at at 0930, and chat about the news or what we watched last night or how someone’s birthday weekend went.  It’s the equivalent of the ‘good mornings’ when you come into the office.

Online there are no ‘trappings’ of power.  We all are the same on screen.

Whinges don’t propagate in the same way because there are fewer opportunities to moan.  But more than that, working remotely means we work harder at creating opportunities for staff to feel involved.

Personally, I do miss seeing folk in person and it’s a joy when we get the chance because it feels special.  But I also have to recognise that I have a much better and stronger relationship with my peeps at DSC than I did before, because I see them more often and we talk more.  And that’s true across all of our teams.

We still do need to meet face to face occasionally and we create the space for that – but don’t be sucked into assuming that office relationships are better and stronger if you’re in the same space every day. 

So, if you’re thinking about remote working don’t focus on what you will lose by not being in an office but rather focus on what you will gain.

Remote working is by far and away one of the best leadership decisions we have ever made at DSC.  And our data shows that we are better and more resilient for it, our productivity is high, our relationships and creativity is strong and our staff are happy. 

If you want to know more about how we have made remote working so successful at DSC get in touch!  I’m happy to share.

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