Meet me at the Watercooler

I’ve recently had a guest blog post published on the Digital Epiphanies blog about how we at the Open Knowledge Foundation facilitate virtual informal discussion.

I’ve mentioned the Digital Epiphanies Project before when I was interviewed as part of their research. It’s an EPSRC- funded project that is attempting to enhance understanding of the “paradoxical and double-edged effects that new technologies and digital practices are having on work-life balance“.

I’d like to repost some of the thinking in behind my blog post here, for those who missed the original.

As those of you who read my blog will know the Open Knowledge Foundation is probably fairly unique in that it is a truly virtual organization. Our staff sit on 4 different continents and over countless timezones. We communicate primarily using online tools and face-to-face is rare for us.

To support our remote/virtual working we have a suite of tools that we utilize, some are for administrative purposes, such as Xero for expenses and Toggl for timekeeping, others are to help us with our work, such as Google drive for documents and Google hangout for meetings, and Trello for project management.

Watercooler moments

The area that always proves to be the most tricky to facilitate is discussion, especially informal discussion, or the ‘watercooler’ discussions as people like to call them. In the past the term ‘watercooler moment’ referred to a controversial event in a television programme that people would discuss at work the next day. These discussions took place next to the drinks dispenser or watercooler. Being able to discuss those exciting TV moments in a group has slowly disappeared as an activity due to changes in television watching (the rise of streaming services and playback TV), but the need to chat hasn’t. Every organisation continues to need a watercooler.

Prior to my joining the Open Knowledge Foundation they had tried out other IRC chat services. Most had faded by the time I started. People do use things like Twitter and Google Plus but these tend to support discussion with external people, not internal colleagues They’d been trying for some time to answer the question: how do you create a chat space internally?

The current service of choice is Grove.io. Grove is an IRC server that has rich functionality. It gives you archives of your chat history, search, user accounts, channel access management tools, GitHub integration. You can also chose to use the web client or a desktop app, and get notified when someone mentions you by name.

watercooler2

At the Open Knowledge Foundation we have quite a few ‘chat rooms’, some for work team chat, some for cross-team chat for example on community or tech, and we have a watercooler room. The watercooler room has the byline ‘100% social chat. No work stuff’. I’d have to say that this isn’t always the case primarily because the boundaries between work and pleasure are pretty blurred for many of us. This is partly because most of us work for an organisation that is fighting for a cause we passionately believe in: the opening up of knowledge. Politics, technology and the state of the world are fair game. However there are cat pictures, silly web links and lunch dates on there too! The quality of the conversation aside encouraging informal chat remains difficult – people are busy and prioritise work activities. Unfortunately, as many of us know, the bonds created by ‘just having a chat’ are those that build better working relationships.

After our last all-staff meet up the subject of social chat came up (again). Suggestions were made that we use a more feature rich platform for our non-work related communications (Diaspora or an inhouse tumblr were mentioned). There seemed to be a reluctance to change platform, but people were all up for social chatting.

So the question isn’t how do you create a chat space internally? It is how do you get people to use a chat space and share a side of themselves that isn’t work facing? Or how do you get people to take their eye off work even for a minute in a virtual organization?

OK, so here are a couple of things that bright sparks at the Open Knowledge Foundation have been doing. One of our team is a DJ on the side and he shares Spotify playlists with us most Fridays. These playlists are great and get us talking. We even ended up with a staff-playlist at our face-to-face event.

Someone else has started a form of virtual Chinese whispers called ‘Eat poop, you cat’ (don’t ask!), which requires people to draw a picture for a sentence. The sentence gets passes along a virtual queue of people and there is lots of silliness involved. We are almost ready to complete our first game, the results hold be interesting and hopefully funny!

We also had a virtual Christmas party in Google hangouts with virtual party hats and real Christmas carols.

These activities can result in more chat on Grove.io and actually give us a much needed break from work.

So what activities and services are you using to make sure that the watercooler remains an important destination?

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