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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“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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