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4 ways to make time for ‘watercooler conversations’ in the hybrid work setting

The pandemic has forced many of us to cut down on human interaction, but it’s still as important as ever.

4 ways to make time for ‘watercooler conversations’ in the hybrid work setting
[Photo: Christina Morillo/Unsplash]

A critical part of filling your personal and work lives with happiness is cultivating strong relationships.

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Some of these ties can be deep, meaningful, and longer-term relationships, but they can also be more casual and occasional connections, which are still effective at lifting moods and helping you feel satisfied in life.

Research at the University of British Columbia found that when people had greater numbers of acquaintances (even if they were more distant connections), they were happier. Further, studies by the University of Chicago found even small talk with strangers contributed to happiness. In other words, social relationships are great, but it’s also possible to benefit from social interactions.

Work is an important context for increasing your social interactions. If you’ve curtailed your visits to your regular exercise class or scheduling more deliveries of your groceries and basic needs, your opportunities for casual interactions are likely reduced. To fill this gap, your work colleagues may be an important source to enhance your social well-being.

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Whether you’re working remotely or at an office alongside coworkers, there are ways to create opportunities for connection through casual conversation.

Stay accessible

An opportune way to strike up a casual conversation is simply to be in the right place at the right time. If you’re in the office, take the circuitous route to the coffee pot so you can run into people. Work in your work café or atrium so you’re present, visible, and accessible for conversation. And instead of scrolling on your phone, strike up a conversation while you’re in line at the office coffee bar.

For people who aren’t in an office, be intentional about connecting at the beginning of a meeting. Log on a couple minutes early and, rather than multi-tasking until the agenda begins, turn on your camera and check in with your colleagues about their weekend or a recently wrapped project.

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It’s common to devalue small talk as a waste of time or inessential to career-building. In reality, casual chats can be the building blocks of understanding your colleagues better, thereby helping people work together better, as well as foster happiness for everyone.

Another pathway to casual chats is using your technology to reach out, even if you mostly use tools for assigning tasks of connecting on deadlines. For instance, when you’re on a video call, use the chat feature to participate actively and respond to others’ comments. When you’re in a meeting with a customer, communicate any note-worthy comments to your coworkers through IM. These modes of sharing can help start a regular form of communication, which can develop into a strong teammate bond.

Follow up

Another way to create the opportunity for casual conversations is by listening and following up. If you hear your colleague mention in a meeting that she tried a new restaurant last night, send her a note later and ask her what she thought of it. Or, if you discuss the new hybrid work policy on a call, follow up by sharing an article on hybrid work that you found interesting.

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Another tip is, if you have an inside joke on the team or funny anecdote, bring the dialogue back later through a meme or a GIF in Slack. Obviously, you won’t want to share these kinds of baubles with abandon—but a small gesture can demonstrate your attentiveness and start a chain of light exchanges.

Listen and share

In connecting casually, look for commonalities. If you know someone bikes to work, and you are a fitness enthusiast, strike up a conversation. Or, if you are friends on social media, ask your teammate about their latest vacation, their daughter’s birthday, or the sunset photo they’ve posted.

Be approachable and make eye contact, whether you’re virtual or in person. Stay off your device and demonstrate you’re willing to connect. Even for introverts, brief, casual, low-risk interactions can add meaning to the day and remind you that you’re an important part of a larger organization.

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Engineer connections the best you can

You can also create opportunities for casual connections by orchestrating or participating in events. If your company has an annual volunteer day, jump into the mix and get to know people as you’re weeding the community garden or repainting the city mission. Or, organize a casual happy hour with people on your project team. Whether or not you know them well, getting together in a non-work setting can encourage rewarding interactions.

You can also be focused on planning your days working in the office. If you work from home a few days a week, reach out to teammates and let them know you plan to come in on a particular day, so your team can coordinate schedules to meet up in person.


Tracy Brower, PhD, is a sociologist focused on work-life happiness and fulfillment. She works for Steelcase, and is the author of two books, The Secrets to Happiness at Work and Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work.

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