Richard M. Gatto
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The New Watercooler

The benefits of employees spending time in the office together are subtle and invaluable.

“In the process of moving around the office, you run into people,” Anita Williams Woolley, associate professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business, told Fast Company. “And these conversations are likely to bring up links to things tangentially related to your work and suggest a new association and bring about creative insight.” These workplace interactions also help professionals thrive on an individual basis and contribute to team efforts. “The physical workplace enables moments of serendipity that can move projects along. You might bump into a colleague while thinking about a problem and ask a question that leads to a new and surprising solution,” Harvard Business Review writes. “Clearly, working more effectively is better for the organization because it makes employees more productive.” And now employers are finding inventive ways to cultivate the irreplaceable upsides of in-person work. Here’s a look at three popular options for growing productivity and camaraderie in the office.

Don’t underestimate the power of java to jog ideas. Employers can facilitate caffeinated chats between employees with some savvy interior design. “Removing coffee points in each department in favor of a centralized cafe or breakout area brings everyone together and dilutes the boundaries between the different disciplines of the business,” insightful environments writes. “As people from different parts of the company visit the space to refuel and refresh, it becomes a hub for unexpected conversations to take place.” Employers are now setting up events called “randomized coffee trials” to foster staff cohesion and effortless idea trading. “Each week or month, a specially designed piece of software matches people at random and informs them of the connection by email,” Conversational Leadership explains. “It is then up to the pair who have been matched to get in touch with each other and organize a chat over coffee.” These get-togethers are proving useful by bringing workers from different sectors together and helping them learn from one another. According to Horizons, “Randomized coffee trials are a brilliantly simple way of connecting people who wouldn’t normally get the chance to meet and have a conversation. They are proven to encourage people to work collaboratively and break down silos.”

Like informal talks over coffee, chance encounters on the office staircase are ripe with potential for stronger professional bonding. “A single staircase built on a scale grand enough to connect all floors also creates a great central hub,” according to Paragon Stairs. “To really see just where all the action of departments interacting with each other lies, you only have to look at the staircase to see who is strengthening relations.” And when employees might otherwise stick to socializing with staff in their own departments, a central staircase can prompt collaborations across departments, which creates greater synergy. “A medium to a large-sized office often experiences disassociation between its different teams and departments,” Ackworth House writes. “The physical divide of rooms and floors discourage employees from interacting with each other. With an intercommunicating staircase, they can meet on the steps and have a quick chat before going about their day.” The ripple effect of these conversations is vital to any organization that values dynamism. “Wide open staircases that flow through a building connecting floors and departments can encourage workflow and foster collaboration, connecting people and spaces,” SpiralUK writes.

While team members can get to know one another and share advice on an open staircase or over coffee, they can also build valuable rapport by simply leaving their desks or cubicles and working at the same table. Space Refinery writes, “community promote a collaborative workplace because they enable your employees to work in groups.” The impact of these team-building tables is manifold. “A communal table could possibly decrease the need of constantly booking a conference room if used as an alternative ‘breakout’ space. It also can bring back the tradition of a ‘kickoff’ morning meeting with your entire company, which jumpstarts momentum for the work day,” Inc. explains. “Utilizing a communal desk space as a collaborative venture between departments can result in quicker communication, faster issue resolution, and impromptu brainstorming and problem solving.” In addition to these benefits, community tables also bring balance to 21st workplace. According to ROSI Blog, “with electronic communications on the rise, the re-birth of the community table is more important than ever. It’s a reminder that face-to-face interaction is still king when it comes to sharing ideas.”

And the opportunities that come from meeting coworkers for coffee, a chat on the stairs, or a brainstorming session at a shared table are irreplaceable even with today’s technological advancements. Brent Zeigler, president of Dyer Brown Architects in Boston, told Forbes that “it’s impossible for online platforms like Zoom to recreate the effects of impromptu in-person socializing” and that “that cultural piece –creating the sense of connectedness, belonging and support – never quite gets there in a virtual setting.”