Virtual Watercooler?

I recently viewed this conversation with Gianni Giacomelli, Head of Innovation Design at MIT, about the Digital Watercooler. I’ve been interested in this since I took a remote job in 2017 with a company in another city. And I learned something.

I hate WFH

It wasn’t all the Zoom calls – I actually lived for the Zoom calls. It was the loneliness of working from home. After my onboarding, my job settled down to 2-3 weeks/month of working from home and 1-2 weeks onsite in the office or with clients. After several months, I grew depressed and felt alienated. This despite seeing my yoga-buddies every morning and filling my after-work with personal and professional events.

When I was onsite with clients or at the company’s office, I felt motivated, engaged, and I did my best work. When I was on conference calls from home, my work wasn’t as satisfying. Between calls, I was fine for a little while. But soon, my energy plummeted and self-doubt and imposter syndrome set in.

I thought it was just me. Then the company went fully virtual and the young folks on the team complained. It turns out they hated WFH, too. They told me they found it lonely and disengaging and not worth the commuting time saved, even in a city notorious for bad traffic. The company tried a hybrid model, with a few days a week at a coworking space. When team members showed up at the same time, it was successful. When they didn’t coordinate their time there, it was unsuccessful. Finally, they opened a new office, where the local team worked regularly and the rest of us showed up together one week / month. I lived for those weeks.

Eventually I took a job at a company that wasn’t virtual. Several months later, Covid hit and we all switched to WFH. And my depression returned, compounded now by a lack of the extracurricular activities that had provided relief before. I finally came up with a way to (poorly) replicate what I love about working in-office: opportunities for synchronicity, running into people you wouldn’t usually run into, or in ways that you wouldn’t usually run into them, and spontaneously solving world hunger. The “water cooler conversation” that technologists are trying to solve now.

Watercoolers & Networking Theory

A few days ago, I thought I was alone in-office, on a floor that can seat 60-80 people. Then I realized someone else was there. I stopped by to say Hi and, when I went to lunch, he did, too. He made small talk about meeting for a project I’m working on. I shared a perspective that he hadn’t considered, and offered to have a team member share work they had done on the topic. In the time it took to pick up our lunch deliveries, we accomplished something that had languished three weeks online.

I’ve been following Gianni Giacomelli since he showed up in a rabbit hole I was exploring. He studies “the Super Mind of Design,” a combination of AI and networking theory. I first learned about networking theory in grad school, where I learned about Dr. Karen Stephenson’s work. She mapped how ideas moved between people and groups in an organization. I find this work intriguing and have applied it myself by doing a loose network map with team members. We identified loose ties that needed strengthening, and developed techniques for tightening those ties, with results that surprised even me.

One of the interesting things about this kind of work are the analogies with natural science. Stephenson’s work started in a chemistry lab where she was studying large protein molecules. One day, something about how ideas spread amongst her colleagues reminded her of the theoretical chemistry patterns, and she soon moved from protein molecules to people. Giacomelli uses the analogy of an organization being like a brain: part of the CEO’s job, he says, is to make sure all areas of the brain are working and sharing information, building new connections, and remaining healthy through outside stimulus. I love when different fields cross-pollinate.

Strong Ties / Loose Ties / Really Loose Ties

In this conversation, Giacomelli suggests that our strong ties (those we have most contact with) have suffered less by WFH than our weak ties (those we have less contact with). He proposes the use of AI (because this is what he’s studying) to grow our weak ties.

I disagree that strong ties have not suffered: while we spend more time with them than with loose ties in WFH, the time has become very tactical: how do we get the work done. What’s missing are the less organized conversations, the spontaneous, “Hey, I’m glad I ran into you, I have a problem, what do you think?” discussions. The best I’ve come up with is regular 1:1 touch-bases with strong ties, places we can chat and sometimes drift into conversations that help us move in different directions. Sometimes it works.

For loose ties, my technique has worked pretty well for me (and kept me sane): I made a list of people in my organization that I wasn’t actively working with and reached out to them through chat on a regular basis, sometimes just saying, “I’ve been thinking about you, how are you doing?” Sometimes I shared articles or commented on their work. Almost all of them replied in some way; occasionally we spontaneously ended up in the world hunger-solving conversations that I love so much.

For even looser ties – those people we used to introduce ourselves to after they said something interesting during Q&A at conferences and events – I’ve found the chat function in online events helpful. Keeping the chat window open and contributing helps me identify people who had interesting things to say. People I want to connect with on LinkedIn and eventually schedule a quick continuation of the topics (sometimes digressions) that we are chatting about.

We Need a Human Solution

But we haven’t figured this out. Introverts, women caring for elderly parents, fathers of young children, and people with insane commutes tell me that they are happy working from home. As do people who take conference calls from a deck chair beside their pool (yes, I am calling you out, you know who you are, and I wish you would quit humble-bragging about it). The rest of us are just trying to figure this out. Even my husband – an introvert who once complained that any time I ask more than two friends to get together, it tends to blossom into a party – actually admitted last week that he hates WFH and would happily return to the office – except that he hates hoteling more (hoteling: a horrible invention that drives introverts nuts).

We haven’t figured the virtual watercooler out and – if we’re not careful – “Silicon Valley” will propose a solution and try to monetize it. Do we really want tech geniuses fixing human relations problems? Tech geniuses? Geniuses are great, don’t get me wrong, they come up with novel ideas because they don’t think the way most people do. But, because they don’t think the way most people do, they may not be the best people to solve what is essentially a people problem. When you think about a tech genius, what stereotype do you think of? A coder, lost behind his screen, working alone? A slick white-color jerk with too much money, seeking a way to realize his fantasy of living in outer space or the metaverse, places noticeably lacking in human contact? Would you take advice on human relationships from those guys?

So we need to solve this – us, people. We can use technology as a tool, but we shouldn’t let technology be the solution. I don’t need an AI setting up blind networking dates for me at work. Recording videos talking about my human user manual isn’t going to solve this for me. I don’t need to create an avatar to live in a fake 3D space where, in theory, we can live in a virtual world with none of the problems of the real world but where women already report their avatars being virtually harassed and worse. Whatever solutions we come up with needs to fill organic, personal, and human. Not technological.

What are you doing that works?

What are some techniques you’re using to replicate those spontaneous problem-solving / brain-storming / mind-blowing conversations that we used to have “around the watercooler”? Please share below – I could use some new ideas.

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