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Productivity and the Virtual Water Cooler

Updated: Feb 11, 2022

A few weeks ago, I spoke with an old colleague. He asked me, “how are you doing?” Being playfully honest by nature, I told him things were not so good that day. He didn’t know what to do with my response.

We ask the common “how are you doing?” many times a day without any real thought. In a lot of ways, it’s the same as asking a child “how was school?” If you’re a parent, you know that, almost always, “school was fine.” It’s only until you ask “anything happened during lunch today?” or “what do you think of your biology teacher?” that you really start getting somewhere.

The same is true in the life of a colleague. Asking the common question is deceptively loaded and you’re likely to get the same response over and over again. When you’re there with the person, you can intuit a lot from their body language. But, in virtual interaction, social exploration is painful.

What I’ve found is that, in this new mode of work, it is awkward to maintain and cultivate deep, personal bonds. We are less likely to have a sense of belonging and fulfillment, which challenges our motivation and productivity. How do we organically create and retain bonds between our colleagues? What, and where, is the virtual water cooler?

Discovering the power of open-ended questions has been my life’s work. Advising leaders on how to be the best version of themselves. How to signal a culture-driven mindset that effectively permeates across the enterprise and inspires people to thrive. How to equip anyone with the

secrets of social bonding.

SHARE HARDSHIP Communicating how we’re dealing with difficulties is a good way to set the stage for real-talk. A newly hired member of my team likes to open the Monday conversation by asking what we’ve been cooking over the weekend. We are all having to cook way more these days, but there can be joy in it.

I share a first attempt at focaccia that failed to rise. An easy slow-roasted Japanese sweet potato recipe. Adding turmeric to my spice cabinet (and you can tell so much about someone from their spice cabinet). Today, I learned that he’s going to be fasting for the coming month, so I guess we won’t be talking about food for a while!

SET SIGNAL Every week, I ask my team what is so hard about working remotely, and we spend time finding solutions. After four weeks of crisis talk, it’s no longer enough to ask about the well-being of people around you. It is now time to find ways to optimize this shared experience.

The best way to show open-minded interest in virtual interactions is, first, by showing your face (which should be the new etiquette of virtual meetings!). It’s hard enough to keep the bonds with colleagues you know, but there’s an underlying urgency about finding ways to form new bonds with new people. We forget that we’re making micro-decisions about the people we’re interacting with based more on what we see than what we hear.

LEAVE EXPECTATIONS BEHIND We need to get past generic interaction to get to the good stuff. By signaling to your colleagues that “how are you doing?” is not just an opener, they become more willing to share what really matters to them. Personal bonding is the unspoken foundation of productivity. But, counterintuitively, true bonding happens when the conversation transcends role and agenda, just like it does around the water cooler.

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