The lost art of the watercooler and its impact on the workforce

In the new normal, the virtual world has joined the real one. As we move our work lives online, it’s time to reimagine the way we interact to ensure positive workplace culture and productivity.

Man working from home

The events of 2020 have expediated the migration to and reliance on digital communication platforms. So, as we see each other physically less, as business leaders we must encourage and lead the way in finding new ways to communicate frequently – and effectively – to keep working relationships meaningful, as we work towards shared goals.

A workforce offsite

As well as being a tremendous enabler of this workplace shift these technologies have offered many advantages to productivity on both a personal level, and in terms of wider business output. According to Dr Franz Wohlgezogen, Senior Lecturer in Leadership, Management and Marketing at The University of Melbourne:

“The core of communication technologies favoured by modern companies have allowed professionals to better focus their time, effort and skills on completing critical tasks efficiently, and to instantly communicate or collaborate across the globe.”

With communication becoming increasingly asynchronous, information can be sent, and consumed on each person’s own time, which means less reliance on diary syncing, and more effective and efficient, self-management.

But these new communication trends come at a cost. Dr Wohlgezogen explains that these digital mediums leave little room for “non-verbal nuances of communication that humans have relied upon for thousands of years to build and navigate relationships.”

These shifts may jeopardize empathy, as we find ourselves relying on pre-built social capital. Reliance on calls, emails and group chat platforms can mean interaction becomes more strictly pragmatic and task focused, leaving little space for the watercooler small talk and its social and mood-lifting benefits. Another key loss can be the generative dialogue that comes through collaborative group discussions, pivotal to innovation and creativity.

Turning losses into growth

However, when we discover the digital tools that can help us achieve some of the unique benefits of in-person dialogue and learn the skills to use them to our best advantage, these losses shift from compromised communication, to an opportunity for growth.

The real task for business leaders is to create a communication culture that strikes a balance between productivity and transactional efficiency, and a genuine emphasis on relationship quality and generative dialogue.

As face-to-face contact lessens, fostering a culture of empathy should become a key priority. Leaders must learn to nurture empathy within their immediate surroundings, in their own lives, and bring this to work, in their interactions through the screen.

With so many tools available to us, we need to recognise which ones to use, when. It is essential we understand their unique advantages, so that we can apply them in the best scenarios. For instance, video chats give us the opportunity to create this generative dialogue. While collaborative tools such as Miro, and Google Drive allow teams to work together in real time, and even simulate analogue collaboration tools such as writing on whiteboards.

While we can marvel at the digital tools we have – which will only improve and multiply – there is truly no substitute for an engaging leader. To guide a team effectively towards a shared goal now more than ever, requires leaders to develop those personal skills to communicate and engage effectively with peers and colleagues of all levels.

The stakes are high, Dr Franz Wohlgezogen continues, “For business leaders to foster a positive relational environment, they must realise the importance of their behaviour even in the most compressed moments of communication – something as simple as their tone of voice in a Teams meeting can have a significant impact.”

The ability to nurture collaborative relationships using a variety of social and digital platforms will be key to teams thriving and companies succeeding.

To become an authentic, articulate and persuasive leader, equipped with a diverse range of communication techniques for a business world becoming increasingly more online focused, explore our Microcertificate in Effective Leadership Communication.