What’s next for remote workers? A virtual ‘watercooler’

The lack of connection has been a constant issue for remote workers, but a slate of new apps promises to make social interactions easier — no matter where employees are. Will people gather in the virtual breakroom?

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For all of the successes of the pandemic-forced shift to remote work, replicating the casual interactions that happen naturally in the office — the impromptu team lunch, informal hallway chat, or a quick strategy session by the coffee machine — has been a lot harder when working from home.

These seemingly innocuous conversations and connections can benefit both workers and employers, improving wellbeing, sparking innovation and even boosting productivity. A growing number of start-ups such as Donut and Tandem are now looking to connect remote colleagues more effectively with “watercooler” and “virtual office” style apps to address the disconnection many workers feel.

“Before COVID, a big question was, 'Can people form close relationships in remote work at all?' or should we design a different type of company that doesn't depend on close relationships?” said Rajiv Ayyangar, CEO and co-founder of Tandem, a video app that creates a virtual office. “But what the world is seeing now is [that] absolutely you can — you just need the right tools and the right culture.”

Rajiv Ayyangar Tandem

Tandem CEO and co-founder Rajiv Ayyangar

Informal social connections are vital for a sense of community and to connect workers with both team members and the organization as a whole, said Angela Ashenden, a principal analyst at CCS Insight.  

“It's this connectedness that drives people to contribute more proactively to the business, to be more engaged in collective participation, and to be motivated to go above and beyond in their day-to-day activities,” she said.

These interactions usually happen organically, she said. “However, when all or some of the team [members] are remote, those opportunities for brief, informal chats — not just about work, but to help people get to know each other — are inevitably severely impacted.”

Better connections, better performance?

Even small barriers can discourage the kinds of low-level interactions that help strengthen bonds. A brief chat about a football game or the latest Netflix series requires more effort when it means a video meeting has to be scheduled, for instance.

“One of the things that's interesting about working remotely is that a lot of those social cues and experiences are vastly different; they have to almost be manufactured,” said David Johnson, a principal analyst at Forrester with a focus on employee experience. 

Feeling disconnected is common, surveys have shown. A recent PwC survey indicated that, while a majority of workers want to continue working remotely — at least part time — most (87%) see the office as “important for collaborating with team members and building relationships.” A survey of 608 software developers last year found that 66% of respondents reported a decrease in social connectedness with their teammates. That study also found that 51% felt a decrease in “communication ease” with colleagues, with impromptu and scheduled social interactions falling (78% and 65%, respectively). And 57% said their ability to brainstorm slipped, too.

Bonds between colleagues can have a variety of benefits, according to one study, including higher trust among teammates, better information sharing and less isolation — especially for extroverts. Social connectivity can also help reduce burnout and give workers needed recognition. “People will have an opportunity to say, ‘Hey nice job on this,’” Johnson said. “That’s really important to our own sense of self efficacy, and [enabling interactions] are an opportunity for these kinds of apps.” 

Strong connections can also improve performance. A survey of 12,000 remote workers by Boston Consulting Group in August showed that employees who were satisfied with their social connectivity were two to three times more likely to have maintained or improved productivity during the pandemic.

BCG social connectivity Boston Consulting Group

Social connectivity is important in managing stress during the pandemic, according BCG.

“Social connectivity, it turns out, is what enables us to be collaboratively productive,” the report said. “Respondents told us they miss ‘being able to spontaneously walk to a co-worker’s desk and discuss an issue’ and ‘social gatherings at work.’ It will be critical for companies to recreate this connectivity, regardless of where employees are located.”

Forming work relationships remotely

Serendipitous conversations can spur innovation by breaking down some of the siloes that exist between departments, said Dan Manian, CEO and co-founder of Donut, a Slack bot that pairs colleagues for video chats and encourages watercooler-style conversations.

dan manian Donut

Donut CEO and co-founder Dan Manian

“[Apple CEO] Steve Jobs famously designed Apple headquarters for people to run into each other,” said Manian. Even the location of the bathrooms at Apple HQ was reportedly designed to ensure employees would cross paths. “That was for innovation; he wanted ideas to cross-pollinate. He wanted different teams to share what they're working on and come up with ideas. There's a real risk if we become disconnected that innovation at the company level might dwindle.” 

Launched four years ago, and backed by $12 million in VC funding, Donut helps employees connect by pairing them with colleagues in a virtual “coffee roulette.” Start-ups offering similar features include Shuffl, WaterCooler, and Snack.

“Our mission is to help create human connection within organizations that then drives camaraderie, collaboration, and culture between folks,” said Manian.

Donut’s Intros feature creates a channel in Slack where employees can opt-in to be connected with others in their organization. This could mean informal 15-minute video chats every couple of weeks, for example. The integration with Slack (a Microsoft Teams integration is under consideration) avoids forcing people to log in to yet another tool just to conenct, said Manian.

While workers can already use popular video apps for team “coffee-break” meetups or Slack for casual one-to-one chats, Donut lowers the barrier to these interactions, said Manian. “We can talk on Zoom, but you're not going to meet a new person because of that tool. There's nothing helping you make these more deliberate connections.”

Donut offers limited free access, and has paid plans beginning at $49 per month for up to 24 users.

One popular use is for onboarding new employees, who can no longer rely on pre-existing relationships built in the office pre-pandemic.

“Think about all the things that new hire is missing out on,” said Manian. “On day one, their manager would have walked them around the office, and they would have shaken hands with a dozen people, gone out to team lunch, or maybe there's a happy hour. There are so many ways that a new hire meets people in their first month and socializes with them, builds relationships, and builds trust that helps them be successful….”

Donut Donut

Donut is designed to reduce the friction of meeting colleagues while working remotely.

Another Donut feature is Watercooler, which launched in October. Donut Watercooler creates a Slack channel where questions are posted at regular intervals as icebreakers or conversation-starters. This has helped employees get to know colleagues better, said Manian.

“When somebody answers the question, ‘What song have you had on repeat recently?’ they learned something about their music tastes and have something to chat with them about…,” he said. “It's building up a sense of who people are, one little ‘How do you like your eggs?’ question at a time.”

There are advantages for employee retention, too. “People that are more engaged and that feel that sense of camaraderie and community are much more likely to stay at a company,” he said.

Buffer, a social media engagement software company, began using Donut to automate its weekly program of one-to-one “pair calls” organized for coworkers. “Until then, we'd used a spreadsheet and manually shifted cells each week and told our teammates to reference that sheet,” said Nicole Miller, people ops manager at Buffer. 

“As we grew from 20 teammates to 50, this became unwieldy. The pair calls were still useful for meeting new teammates and it was an important part of our onboarding process for new hires, so I wanted to make sure we didn't lose it.”

Around a third of the company is actively using the Donut pairing program, including new hires. “It's a lightweight thing and with [it] being optional, teammates can step out if they hit a more intense time in their work or personal life,” said Miller. 

Donut saves time and provides annual reports on usage and pairings. “Manual pairings just felt too time-intensive and almost enough of a hurdle to scrap the entire thing,” said Miller. “With Donut, we really don't have to think about it week to week, and I appreciate the built-in reminders and prompts.”

Ashenden, at CCS Insight, said Donut's “opt-in” aspect is important — particularly if a company assures workers they’ll not be accused of wasting time. “It's an interesting approach and is great where you have a senior leader who is looking to promote more of these informal interactions across the business, or where you have a lot of new joiners … who you want to become more integrated into the culture,” she said.

Low-friction video conversations

During the remote-work boom, video apps played a crucial role in allowing businesses to continue face-to-face meetings. Video became such a mainstay of work, in fact, that the term “Zoom-fatigue” entered the vernacular.

Video conversations require more effort than chats in the office, said Tandem's Ayyangar. That can prevent lower-stakes conversations from occurring.

“The friction to talk is higher [when working remotely],” said. “Talking itself can be energy draining instead of energy giving. When you expand this simple problem to a team or larger enterprise, the result is that it's harder to talk, so people talk less. You start losing entire categories of connection; you lose the spontaneity, you lose the hallway conversations before and after meetings, you lose the lunchtime conversations.”

For Y-Combinator alumni Tandem, which has raised $7.5 million in seed funding, low-friction video conversations allow better connections. It is one of a variety of virtual office-style video apps, include Pragli, Knock, and Sococo, that use visual cues to denote presence.

tandem app Tandem

Tandem is one of a variety of office-style video apps.

Tandem promises more transparency into what co-workers are doing and when they can chat, making it easier to connect. (It can also show what application a teammate is using at any given time, whether it be Trello or Microsoft Word.) Tandem, which offers a 14-day free trial, then costs $10 per active user a month, also provides video “rooms;” they can be used for regular daily “stand-up” meetings, casual watercooler-style discussions, or more.

Joining a chat room indicates that someone is available to chat, which somewhat replicates the visual cues in an office that a teammate is either available for a conversation or scrambling on deadline.

A video meeting can involve a team project discussion or be more casual. In many cases, small teams can be in “quiet co-working” rooms for hours, either with video running in the background or just an audio feed, with users “un-muting” when they want to talk. Tandem also lets users link Spotify; some customers use it simply to listen to music together while working.

“Patterns of communication can become very rigid,” said Ayyangar. “In an office, you have so many different ways you can talk. You can have a two-minute conversation, you can wave at somebody, or you can hop into a meeting, and talk for an hour. When you start losing all of those more spontaneous modes you have to fit everything into one-hour Zoom-blocks.”

Ayyangar cites a University of Michigan study indicating video (and to a lesser extent, audio) is significantly better at building trust and enabling cooperation than text chats, and is almost on par with face-to-face visits.

He pointed to the success of gaming communication app Discord in fostering friendships between gamers that have never actually met. Discord, similar to Tandem, can provide a persistent communications channel while users focus on another task — in this case, gaming.

“The analogy for work, we say, is it is really possible to form good relationships with people, but instead of games, it's the work; it's the multiplayer apps, it's the meetings, it's building something together, then you have that communication in the background,” he said.

Social interactions: Are apps the whole answer?

Investing in a single tool is unlikely to be a silver bullet; an organization’s strategy around supporting remote work is also vital.

“The technology will not create the culture,” said Johnson. “What's encouraged and discouraged by the managers and how managers behave, that's what creates the culture. But the technology can help reinforce and shape the culture and give it new pathways to evolve.”

Ashenden sees this as a cultural and business change issue “first and foremost,” though she agrees collaboration and communication tools play a key role.

“There's often such a focus on productivity and efficiency that it becomes implied that non-work conversations are non-productive,” she said. “The past few months have shown the limitations of this — that without those interactions, we lose the cohesion of teams, and people lose their motivation and drive.

“That said, there is a role for technology here - both in terms of embracing new tools that promote the creation and continuation of people relationships across the business, but also in reconsidering our use of existing tools and whether they actually help or hinder in this regard.”

Email, for instance, is badly suited for interactive, informal discussions. “Similarly, while video meeting tools seem like they replicate in-person meetings, you don't get the informal chat before and after the meeting that you would get in an in-person meeting,” said Ashenden.

For any app designed to connect workers, serious buy-in is crucial to success.

“Unless it becomes part of people's normal flow of work, it may be something that they just don't use,” said Johnson. “If they go [to an app] a few times and there's nobody around, they're just not going to go in there all that much. It has to be pretty widespread in the way that people are using it, and also something that an organization makes people feel committed to using as much as they can, so that's harder.”

Modes of communication vary

One challenge both Donut and Tandem tackle is how to mimic, if not replicate entirely, how people interact at work But how people connect varies — whether they're remote or in the office — and employees tend to gravitate to their preferred communication style, said Manian.

“For most organizations there isn't a singular solution to the connection challenge,” he said “Obviously there are … introverts, extroverts and everything in between. Different people prefer one-on-one connections, different people feel more comfortable in groups.”

In the office, he said, there are many ways to build relationships, whether it’s bumping into someone in the hall, grabbing lunch together or chatting at company happy hours. “There were many different venues and avenues to connect with people, and a lot of people didn't do all of them; they did the ones that fit them, the ones where they were comfortable meeting people,” he said.

“We discovered it's really important to have those different levers and different ways for people to connect and engage and try to mimic the variety that we had in an office environment,” he said.  “Not everybody actually wants to talk at the watercooler, some people just want to get their water or their coffee and go back to their desk, and they'll connect with people while they're in a brainstorm, wheeling over to a whiteboard — that's how they engage.

“It’s been interesting for us to see that it's not ‘one size fits all;’ there are a lot of ways to help drive connection.”

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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