Building Remote Office Culture with a Watercooler Channel

As if being the cradle of modern-day innovation wasn’t enough, the technology sector offers a veritable cornucopia of work perks. You’ve probably heard about Google’s famous nap pods, paid paternity leave, cooking classes, massages, and more.

But I’m going to argue that a company culture where contributions are acknowledged and employees are comfortable enough to bring their whole selves to work – wherever they physically choose to work – is one of the best work perks you can offer. Here at Revelry, one of the many perks we enjoy is the option to work remotely whenever we want.

While our spacious (and snack-filled) office in the heart of New Orleans is a fantastic home base, sometimes the comfort of your home office or patio is more appealing- especially if wearing pants isn’t on the agenda. And if you don’t reside in New Orleans let alone the southern United States, starting your workday at our HQ would make for a near impossible commute.

How do you build company culture when working offsite?

Virtual office spaces are the new normal in tech, but does the freedom to operate offsite come at a cost to a your company’s culture? Having a strong culture plays a pivotal role in building trust among team members, setting goals, and getting to a place where we can seamlessly work together to accomplish those goals. So, can this be cultivated without in-person communication?

As a people person with a penchant for the observation of human behavior, I set out to determine the fragility of a culture inhabited predominantly online.

Office culture is a made up of the collective mindset of a group of individuals…

…and the social dynamics within that group. I spoke to my colleagues about how our location-flexible work policy affects our office culture. Resoundingly, they argued that our office culture is a reflection of our core values, and that by following those values, our team simply gets stronger as we grow and spread out geographically.

And, we tend to reveal a lot more about ourselves when chatting informally. This is where that “whole self” aspect comes in. By using the #watercooler channel in Slack, the team is able to expose facets of our personalities that we might otherwise conceal when using more formal means of electronic communication.

The office water cooler is now the Slack watercooler channel.

We organize all of our work conversations and project planning in Slack. Since it’s basically our virtual office, it needs a place for informal break-time chatter. And that’s why #watercooler is so important. When I asked Mary in QA about this, she put it this way:

“I find it extremely important to show my personality to my colleagues. If I didn’t, wouldn’t that make me a robot? We’re not robots here… But we can build them!”

For Aline, knowing what makes her team tick helps her anticipate their needs as a Producer and Project Manager. And informal chit chat is exactly how to learn about other people’s likes and dislikes.

#watercooler brings people together.

Since our typical project flow makes it so that not all team members are connected with each other on a daily basis, it’s possible to go a week or more without interacting with your coworkers. That’s probably the norm at a lot of large companies, and possibly preferred for a certain personality, but as a general rule, I’d say that even the most mundane interactions can make a positive impact on team building.

The #watercooler channel allows for serendipitous interactions, so “striking up a conversation” never has to be forced or disruptive.

The team can opt in or out of casual sharing and participation – and maybe that empowerment is even greater with a digital #watercooler than with a real life break room!

The potential to get to know each other better or receive trusted recommendations from your coworkers adds so much to enrich the life of a valued employee. Aline adds, “I like #watercooler because it’s a place where I can ask for recommendations about things like Paris, for example. And people are helpful and jump in to give suggestions. Someone will bring up a concert and bring up general fun stuff.”

For Brittany, a member of our Design team, the #watercooler channel bridges in-person and online perfectly. “I typically like to use the #watercooler channel to post about upcoming events in New Orleans that others might be interested in. It’s always fun to get a group together to hang out, even if it isn’t a work-related event. Sometimes I post news updates, too. My favorite thing to post in #watercooler, though, is that I’ve brought something fun into the office to share – like a bucket of Halloween candy!”

#watercooler builds empathy.

Mary adds, “at Revelry, I work with a wonderful, diverse, inclusive, curious, intelligent, and insanely humorous group of people. Our office culture is something that I can enjoy in and out of the office.” And this happens, she says, in the #watercooler channel of course.

But, as I mentioned, not everyone participates heavily in these informal discussions. And that’s ok.

Of course there will be a handful of people who don’t chime in on the channel, which simply means it will take a little longer to get to know them.

But, according to Aline, if she’s been able to notice your personality by interacting on #watercooler, she can understand where you’re coming from and whether you’re having a good or bad day. “I’ll be able to respond appropriately,” she tells me.

#watercooler inspires cooperation.

Brittany says that even if she doesn’t get the chance to get silly on #watercooler with someone, she still feels like she’s been able to get to know her remote coworkers. “Working together on projects always helps to get to know each other better, too. That’s how I get to know all of our newer developers. I would love to be on a project with everyone at some point so we can all slowly build more trust and get stronger as a team.”

For some reason, trust falls seem to be synonymous with team building activities. But what better trust fall can you experience than to share a quirky meme or gif, relate some sort of pet care fail, or ask for home remedies for cold and flu? Being vulnerable enough to expose your sense of humor or ask for help on non-work advice builds connections that translate into team cooperation as we work together to solve problems for others.

Every organization needs a water cooler and those all-important water cooler moments, whether they’re in-person or digital.

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