Why Water Cooler Conversations Are Essential to Work Productivity

During my recent U.K. trip, while doing VSee calls all day long, it was IM and Chatter that I depended on the most to keep in touch with my coworkers.  Those tools in addition to one-click video calling were critical for my informal interactions–those casual conversations that are so important for building rapport and keeping in the know.  In the face-to-face world, this can be anything from saying “hi” to a coworker on your way to the espresso machine to swinging by your manager’s office to double check a work order.

Many studies have documented the essential role of casual conversations in the workplace.  One study estimated that 25-70% of work time is spent in face-to-face interactions, of which 30% may consist of casual conversations.  These unplanned meetings are so critical that another study found that people were actually less productive and less able to carry out their jobs when casual conversations were not possible.

It turns out that these informal chats are not just important for socio-emotional reasons like finding out who always has the latest gossip, learning that you should always root for Cal instead of Stanford, building team rapport, and creating all those other warm fuzzies necessary to make work meaningful and enjoyable.  They are, in fact, the vehicle for doing work like showing someone how to do something, coordinating collaborative work, resolving issues, stimulating new ideas, making quick decisions, checking up on people in a non-intrusive way, and building trust needed for productive work to happen.

Today, however, many people don’t even work in the same country as their coworkers, much less the same office, and the number of these geographically distributed work systems are growing.  One researcher claims that, in software development at least, traditional face-to-face meetings are essentially dead as the main means of communication and coordination.  Undoubtedly, the inability to have these informal interactions will impact collaborative efforts.

Video chatting has rapidly become one way to overcome these distance barriers.  While it doesn’t replicate all these casual interactions, it does make a huge difference and is already an essential communication tool in many companies.  However, don’t get too excited if you’re using a traditional video conferencing system such as Cisco, Polycom, and Tandberg.  Research has found that these pretty much only work for scheduled meetings instead of the casual ad hoc encounters that come up throughout the day. The good news is that you can use videoconferencing systems (like VSee :)) that are less expensive and that do make possible these important impromptu conversations wherever you are.

Related Studies

1.  S. Whittaker, D. Frohlich, and O. Daly-Jones.  Informal workplace communication: What is it like and how might we support it?  In Proc. of ACM CHI, 1994, pp. 131-137.

2.  R. Kraut, C. Egido, and J. Galegher. Patterns of contact and communication in scientific research collaboration.  In Proc. Of ACM CSCW, 1988, pp. 1-12.

3.  M. Jimenez, M. Piattini, and A. Vizcaino.  Challenges and improvements in distributed software development: A systematic review.  Advances in Software Engineering (2009).  doi: 10.1155/2009/710971

4.   C. Gutwin, S. Greenberg, R. Blum, J. Dyck, K. Tee, and G. McEwen. Supporting Informal Collaboration in Shared-Workspace Groupware.  Journal of Universal Computing 14, 9 (2008), 1411-1434.

5.  S. Hirsh, A. Sellen, and N. Brokopp.  Why HP people do and don’t use videoconferencing systems.  HP Technical Report, HPL –2004-140(R.1), 2005.

Comments ( 2 )
  • milton
    Rich Griffin says:

    Great points Milton. I look forward to your next posts.

    In the last company I worked at, we used a combination of scheduled and ad hoc collaborative tools to aid team affinity. Along with corporate-IM, e-mail, VoIP and GoToWebinar, I set up what I called a virtual window between our Cleveland, OH office and our Gurgaon India office using wall mounted 50″ monitors and cameras at both sites – arranged to give the impression of furthering the length of our offices by visually connecting both offices. I even had matched throw rugs on the floors of both offices under the camera/monitor set ups to give the impression of a continuous floor. A bit cheesy, but actually effective. For audio we used an always-connected VoIP conference line utilizing the polycom IP phones’ speakerphone mode on everyone’s desk. When you needed to make or receive a call, the phone switched lines – then returned to the office-to-office conference line by default.

    This allowed us to achieve a substantive connection beyond conference calls and a closer ties with co-workers we only previously knew by voice, IM or e-mail.

    VSee would have been a better solution as our Gurgaon office’s IP connection quality was “variable”.

  • milton
    milton says:

    That’s going all out–matching the floor patterns for both offices!
    And I completely agree about using VSee 😉

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