Beyond the Water Cooler: Crucial Employee Interactions in the Remote Era

Community Blog
Written by John Hallett

DECEMBER 1, 2020

It’s a cliché by now: Executives and managers worrying about the “water cooler conversations” that employees are missing out on as they shift to remote work. But run-ins in the kitchen aren’t the only spontaneous interactions that employees are lacking right now. And the impact goes well beyond social cohesion, reaching into talent development, retention, and diversity.

First, the scope of the problem: “Connection from leader to employee is as high as it’s ever been,” one CHRO said recently. “And connection from peer to peer on the same team is incredibly high. But we’re really worried about the connections that employees – particularly new hires – aren’t making.” The concern abounds in conversations we have had with CHROs over the past few months.

“It takes a village to develop a leader. How do we create that village feel in the remote environment?”

Anecdotes about these missing connections abound, but not much data has been published on the problem. In perhaps the most extensive report published since the pandemic, Microsoft investigated the impact of remote work on its employees’ networks in China. The results were surprisingly mixed: More than a quarter of employees’ networks stayed about the same size, and more than a sixth of employees saw their networks grow by 30%.

But that still leaves a significant number of workers whose connections have decreased in number. In addition, the study likely underestimates the change in their networks, because it only measures digital interactions (emails, scheduled meetings, and Teams messages). Thus, by definition it doesn’t account for literal “water cooler” interactions, hallway encounters, and desk drive-bys.

These spontaneous interactions do much more for employees than providing a social outlet. The first concern we hear often from CHROs in this context is around engagement. Research shows that, independent of rank, employees with larger networks were more engaged. Additionally, network size is a strong predictor of employee performance. 

Another crucial concern is leadership development. A great deal of “informal coaching” happens in the moments between meetings: A manager provides on-the-spot feedback to an employee after a presentation. A senior executive asks a rising employee for her thought on a project. Unscheduled, unscripted interactions like these abound, resulting in feedback to help your employees develop and exposure that can lead to growth assignments. As one CHRO put it, “It takes a village to develop a leader. How do we create that village feel in the remote environment?”

To replace these types of in-person interaction for a remote and hybrid environment, CHROs will need to inventory and formalize processes that are sometimes invisible and informal. For instance, to ensure that employees have a chance to take on new assignments that are sometimes doled out in the course of informal interactions, they can create internal work marketplaces (such as the one Unilever launched last year) that can increase access some employees have to important projects.

In addition, employers should focus on facilitating their employees’ network growth in a deliberate manner. This can have a positive impact on all high-potential talent, but especially for diverse talent. A more typical, ad-hoc approach to networks can leave women and minorities struggling to connect with a diverse range of roles, skill levels, or experiences, and doesn’t guarantee exposure to senior leaders. By carefully creating networks that focus on employee growth, organizations can improve inclusion, increase engagement, and provide more opportunities for talent mobility. The CHRO of a major health care technology provider, for instance, is developing an inventory of employee skills in order to match up emerging talent with more senior employees who can help with areas for development.

Identifying and rethinking crucial interactions will be a heavy lift. But it presents an enormous opportunity as well. “We have the chance to literally re-shape the way we interact with people that do work on behalf of our company,” said one CHRO. By creating new processes from the ground up, CHROs can leave their companies with more engaged employees, a deeper leadership bench, and more diverse talent.


John Hallett headshot

John Hallett

Content Manager at Evanta, a Gartner Company


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