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Missing Insights from the Virtual Water Cooler

How do you get informal insights about your work when you don't have a water cooler to chat around? Modern Mentor shares some of her favorite recent insights on what employees need from their workplaces right now.

By
Rachel Cooke
5-minute read
Episode #687
In the past couple of years, we’ve learned a lot about working remotely and/or in a hybrid fashion. We’ve figured out how to sustain productivity, run meetings, have brainstorming sessions, and so much more.
 
But for many of us, something still feels like it's missing—that chatter that happens by the water cooler. And I don’t just mean the casual how-was-your-weekend catchups, but the informal conversations that remind us we’re not alone in the experiences we’re having as we navigate this still uncertain and unprecedented moment.
 
Part of my work is to help companies capture and understand the voices of their employees—to learn what their experiences are, where there are opportunities for change, and what solutions or interventions may be the most impactful. I do this by conducting Listening Sessions—essentially focus groups designed to unlock employee sentiment which I then synthesize and feed back to leadership teams.
 
What I’ve noticed in recent months is that employees are beginning to use these sessions to replicate those missing water cooler conversations. Participants are not just offering feedback to their leaders during these sessions, but they’re also validating each other’s experiences while sharing actionable strategies that anyone can pick and use.
 
In case you’re missing your own water cooler moments, today I’d like to share with you some of my favorite insights and strategies I’ve had the good fortune of hearing over the past many months. Whether you’re a leader or just a citizen of your organization, there’s something actionable for you to take away.

1. Taking breaks must be normalized

Burnout, exhaustion, overwhelm—they’re all still present. Companies know this, and they’re preaching the importance of taking breaks. But telling people to take breaks in the face of back-to-back meetings that run all day is not helpful.
 
So what is helpful? According to my listening sessions, employees want to see break-taking get normalized—highlighted, talked about, even applauded.
 
In one session, I heard about a leader who started kicking off their team meetings by sharing something fun he did on a recent break (like watch a cat video) and then asking others in the room what they planned to do during their next break.
 
This simple practice made it not only acceptable to take a break but almost unacceptable not to—because then what would you have to share?
 
So, give this a try. Don’t sneak in a break and pretend it never happened. Share it with the world, reminding them that you’ve recharged and now you’re ready to dive in with a clearer head than before.
 
Chances are you’ll be a trendsetter.

2. “Fun” is in the eye of the beholder

“Know what’s not fun for a recovering alcoholic?” a participant in a listening session asked me. “Mandatory happy hours—on Zoom or in person.” 
 
This comment took the conversation down a rabbit hole of recognition that too many leaders are trying too hard to mandate fun
 
While there may be legitimate value in having a team come together in a casual format—just to connect without agenda or formal objective—there’s also a need to give people space to find or make their own fun.
 
This group advocated for giving everyone an hour a week to do their thing—be it participate in a lunch-and-learn or take an online course, or read a book or go on a run or do a bit of philanthropy—all during the workday. Being serious about fun means making time for it “on the clock”—that’s a true commitment to wellness.
 
So get the ball rolling by asking your teammates what their version of fun is. Are there any themes running through? If so, ask your boss if you can take the lead on hosting a session—maybe a book club or a cooking class (not a happy hour!)—that everyone can participate in. 
 
And if no theme jumps out, then try suggesting a Free-Hour-Friday during which everyone gets to do something of their own choosing… and then shares a 30-second highlight during your next team meeting.
 
Giving team members space to find their own fun and then sharing highlights with the team helps people manage their energy while also driving team connection.

3. We must respect each other’s choices

There are companies who have stated “no politics in the workplace” policies, but the truth is that these days nearly everything, from sports to healthcare to education, feels political. 
 
Instead, what I’m hearing in these sessions is that employees want a call for respect rather than a ban on politics.
 
To come into the office or not, to travel internationally or not, to support certain streaming services or professional sports leagues or brands or not—it's all a matter of personal and complicated choice.
 
We’re having to make choices and assess risk and values at nearly every turn. And we’re all kind of exhausted. So we don’t want to expend more energy on hiding or defending or justifying our choices.  
 
So start by role modeling respect. Recognize that everyone is making so many decisions right now. Don’t challenge or question them. Live and let live. 

4. Inclusion is bigger than just an invitation

Inclusion and belonging are coming up a lot these days. Teams are recognizing in many cases that there is more diverse representation around the table.
 
But what they want now is to hear more of those diverse voices.
 
Bringing diverse talent in the door is table stakes. The real question is what are we doing to give voice to that talent, to hear their insights, ideas, questions, and concerns? 
 
Here are some of the suggestions I’ve heard mentioned in these sessions to drive a greater sense of inclusion:
  • Seek out opinions and feedback early when you’re working on an idea. If you wait until your plan is fully baked, the invitation for feedback seems disingenuous.
  • Connect with employee resource groups (employee-led groups designed to be forums for team members with a shared characteristic—race, gender, life-phase, etc.) and invite their perspectives early and often to help shape your thinking.
  • Network regularly and intentionally with people in different parts of the organization so your perspective starts to expand.
The point is to recognize that diversity is a solid start, but that inclusion is the name of the game. Tap into the breadth of wisdom and perspective available.
 
I hope something here has left you feeling less alone, and maybe even with some clarity on an action you’ll take.
 
If you have an insight to add to the list, I’d love to hear it. Drop me a note at modernmentor@quickanddirtytips.com to let me know! 
 

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.