Celebrating One Year of Virtual Water Cooler Chats


Celebrating One Year of Virtual Water Cooler Chats

by Kendra Allenspach

It was just about this time last year when things started to turn on their head. The COVID-19 global pandemic hit, and drastic changes followed. While I was already a remote employee, working from home was not new to me. However, I had a client trip to New Jersey taken off the books, and I was grounded in San Jose, CA. My fellow coworkers around the globe were experiencing similar changes with our in-office employees in hubs like Oklahoma, Portland and Chicago being asked to work from home for the foreseeable future.

A World Turned Upside-Down

I could feel the panic infiltrating our conversations and Slack messages. I felt distracted and uneasy about the impending changes and state of the world, and I was sure others did as well. My coworker in Australia, Rob, had shared that they were opening up their team’s “co-working Zoom” to the company as a chance to get some human interaction. In his words: “In light of the measures we’re putting into place to help protect the InterWorks family in the form of social distancing, we didn’t want people to feel socially absent.” I really appreciated his sentiment and decided to take that concept a step further and institute standing “Water Cooler Chat” (WCC) Zoom sessions—an open meeting invite for anyone in the company to pop in for some socialization:

When I posted about it for the first time in Slack, I wasn’t sure if people would get on board. But when the time came for our first WCC, we had 15 people join! I was thrilled to know other people were seeking the same connection I was during these crazy times.

The Value of Virtual Community

While I had originally anticipated WCC would last only through the initial six-week shelter-in-place period, as the work-from-home orders, extended so did WCC. And today, one year later, we are still meeting every week to gather around the virtual water cooler for some friendly conversation. Here are what some of my colleagues have to say about it:

Sebastian Deptalla | Analytics Consultant

Being from Germany, WCC has helped me to not only get to know a bunch of beautiful souls from over the pond but also to learn about some really weird customs over there, too. If I had to sum up these times in a few words, they would be openwelcoming, curious, supportive and hilarious. And though she always states that she wants WCC to be able to run without her, Kendra remains the heart of the WCC, creating 30 really heartfelt minutes each Tuesday.

Tim Adams | IT Support Manager

Water Cooler Chat has been awesome. Even though I am one of the few that has had the pleasure of being in the office regularly, there have been days with just me there. WCC has been a great moment to stop and chat with others around the company I haven’t been able to see or talk to, even if we were all in our offices like normal. Getting to chat about random topics with people across the U.S. and globe is a highlight of the week. It really enhances the awesome people-focused culture we really strive for at InterWorks. The conversations during WCC are always evolving, and you never know what conversation you are going to step into. Some days I feel like this when trying to figure out where the conversation started and how it ended where it did:

Above: Often, WCC conversation is mysterious indeed

Danny Steinmetz | Analytics Consultant 

In a year where “Zoom fatigue” not only entered our vocabulary but became all too familiar, it’s strange to think of a recurring Zoom meeting as a highlight. But every Tuesday and Friday, there was one Zoom meeting I looked forward to: Water Cooler Chat. I think there were a few reasons these chats felt so much different than other Zoom meetings with the most prominent, for me, being its relationship to the future. Water Cooler Chats have the potential to continue and connect long after the pandemic prohibits in-person meetings.

But more than that, it’s the idea of growing closer to coworkers, old and new, and knowing that I will get to see them in person again, whether that’s at our holiday party, the summer barbecue or other events that were staples at InterWorks pre-2020. The feelings that often inhabit me after the Water Cooler Chats are along the lines of “Wow, I can’t wait to chat with Brandon about music over drinks one day,” or “Next time I see Rachel, I’ll have to give her the baked goods she helped inspire me to make.” Remembering the times we were able to hang out, while also being able to hope for future hangs, allows us to escape the haunts of “new normals” and “unprecedented times.” Kendra really started something special with these, and I cannot thank her enough!

Above: A photo from our very first WCC ever in March 2020

Henry Arend | Platforms Architect

I think that WCC has allowed people who usually are on the road to have a little bit of time to chat with each other even when we aren’t able to see one another. Typically when we’re traveling, we’ll get to stop and see coworkers either in cities we’re working in or on our way to a client site. With the pandemic stopping travel, we’re able to forge some new bonds even with people we wouldn’t typically get to see. I really hope to see WCC continue even after the pandemic is over, so we can all still hang out for 30 minutes, hear about what new instrument Danny is playing, what the latest cat hairstyle is from Kevin [Kendra’s cat] or what new thing Rachel has baked!

Holt Calder | Data Architect 

Water Cooler Chat has been a great way to unplug in a year that has redefined normal. Being a local to Stillwater, I always loved getting to chat with coworkers in the mornings, and I can’t say how fun it has been to have that same experience with folks who work remotely where normally I wouldn’t get that opportunity.

Sarah Dorfman | Analytics Consultant 

The beginning of the pandemic lockdown was hard. I am a social people-person. I thrive on connecting with people, especially in person. Not being able to see my coworkers, or even my clients, face to face (Zoom doesn’t count) has been incredibly hard.  That said, Water Cooler Chat has been such a delight. It’s a great way to kick off my Tuesday morning on the West Coast (before the Zoom fatigue hits later in the day) and has enabled me to feel connected to folks I normally wouldn’t see or interact with, like Tim and Susan in Stillwater, Sebastian in Germany or Karl in Colorado.

Plus, if I come in a few minutes late, it’s anyone’s guess as to what topic I stumbled into. Yesterday, for example, I joined the call, heard someone say the phrase “movie with an evil business lady” and was immediately asked to guess what the group was taking about. Clearly, I was not thinking Rugrats in Paris. We really cover a wide spectrum of topics, and it cracks me up so much. Plus, I appreciate that occasionally the group indulges me and lets me share cute pics or videos of my niece.

Above: A photo of many regular Water Cooler Chatters in one of our March calls

Karl Young | Data Architect

It’s hard to believe the remote version of Water Cooler Chat has been going for a year. I was never a water-cooler lurker anyhow, but somehow this version filled a need that I didn’t know I had. Some highlights from our times together this last year are:

  • Talking informally to people about any and everything
  • Showing and viewing cats and dogs from around the world (try and do that at a regular water cooler)
  • Being reminded just how bright, clever and kind the InterWorks folks are
  • Occasional guest visitors: sisters, brothers, parents and the aforementioned pets. Plus, stories from personal lives that are too wonderful to believe
  • Chatting with people who even occasionally laugh at my jokes … Not always, but occasionally.

Like a real-life work setting, I can’t always make it to WCC, but when I do, I always emerge feeling better about work, life, the universe and everything.

Tracy O’Connell | Legal Assistant

WCC has been a bright spot in my workdays over the last year. In the Before times, I was lucky to work at the Stillwater office and be able to engage with smart, witty people every day. Now I work from the dining-room table, and although I am still lucky in that I have my family here with me (they’re pretty smart and witty, too), the work days can get dull and monotonous. Being able to see and talk to my lovely coworkers, especially the ones that live further afield, brings joy. And we all need that these days. Many thanks to Kendra for starting these and hosting them throughout the year.

Susan Marlow | Project Accountant

Water Cooler Chat has been so fun. I was a bit late in joining them, but I try to make it every chance I get. You never know who’s going to show up or what the discussion will be, and we get to meet with employees from around the globe we would otherwise not get the chance to meet. I’m so thankful to Kendra for putting it together. I’ve truly enjoyed it! It’s been a difficult year for everyone, so it’s really nice to take a break in the day and chat it up with colleagues and see what’s going on in their lives and how they’re doing. We don’t generally discuss business at all; it’s all on a personal level and I love that! For me, it’s been a great morale booster!

Make Space for Spontaneous Connection

I read recently in a Harvard Business Review article about the importance of small talk in virtual meetings. The article outlines the implications of lost small talk in employee relationships and feelings of connection and suggests ways to “bring back the missing piece of your team’s culture.” The article lists out some suggestions of ways to practically do that, and I would venture to add Water Cooler Chats to that list.

By creating a designated time and space for small talk, employees can gather in a low-pressure context and on their own terms. There’s no obligation to show up if it doesn’t work for someone’s schedule, but it’s also there when people need it. Without super rigid guidelines around how the time or conversation is structured, people can get a taste of the wonderful, goofy, unexpected organic interactions many of us are missing these days. If your organization is open to introducing something like this, you should definitely go for it! It’s been a great way for us at InterWorks to stay connected, encourage each other and collectively anticipate a (hopefully imminent) return to the face-to-face world we miss. Here’s hoping we all see each other out there soon!

More About the Author

Kendra Allenspach

Analytics Architect
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