Now that many employees are working from home and relying on digital tools to connect, spontaneous conversations rarely happen anymore.

Why is this important? Before the pandemic, those underappreciated moments—passing in the hallway, catching up in the break room, chatting at someone’s desk—helped to:

  • Build and reinforce good working relationships
  • Encourage cross fertilization of ideas and spark new ones
  • Build trust with the organization, including leaders
  • Contribute to culture
  • Awaken creativity and inspire collaboration

While our digital tools are helping us get the work done, they do present challenges:

  • Loss of non-verbal cues: 90% of what happens during a conversation is non-verbal. Tone, feeling and body language are difficult to translate, even during a video chat.
  • Working from home…alone: Distractions pile on when we’re working from home (childcare, homeschooling, housework, etc.), and we often forget to reach out to colleagues and teams.
  • We always have our business hats on: When it comes to web-based tools, we tend to get down to business right away—not making room for personal banter or quick discussions on other work.

Leaders are in the perfect position to break down these challenges by giving employees the permission and space to have virtual “water cooler” conversations. Here are five strategies to foster helpful interactions in your organization:

1. Set up virtual meeting places
Leverage your organization’s social tool, such as Teams, Slack or Yammer:

  • Create channels that support your team’s priorities (such as “new product development”) and identify owners who encourage discussion and make connections.
  • Start micro-blogging: short, 50-word posts about a conversation you had with a customer, challenges on your mind, a question that inspires input or an article that made you think differently about a project. Whenever possible, pose a question or ask for comments so employees participate in the conversation.

2. Make time for informal discussions during formal communication
Replicate the conversations that used to happen when colleagues entered a meeting room. Schedule a 10-minute warm-up before the official start time of a web-based meeting.

3. Encourage interaction
Interaction is that magical moment when leaders ask, rather than tell. They ask for input, rather than immediately solve the problem. Here are a few examples:

  • Debrief large projects—facilitated by someone outside the group.
  • Gather a group of colleagues to brainstorm. It doesn’t have to be a big challenge or a large group. Even five minutes together can produce lots of ideas. Try tools that are available in your meeting platform (such as a whiteboard) and check out new brainstorming tools that are designed to imitate classic, in-person brainstorming techniques (such as Miro).
  • Make time for silly and fun: Play a game (there are many online group games available) or conduct house tours (think employee version of HGTV).

4. Increase your face time
Even if you’re limited to digital tools, employees still want to hear from you. Try these techniques:

  • Try ask-me-anything sessions. Leverage the private chat feature in your meeting platform. It encourages more challenging questions that some employees may not be comfortable asking in the open.
  • Reach out to individuals or teams you haven’t met with in a while.
  • Plan more meetings! While this may feel counterintuitive, the trick is to make them shorter and focus on a single topic or action.

5. Challenge your managers to include small exchanges throughout the day
Whether it’s a simple “hello” or a one-on-one chat about current projects, encourage people managers to:

  • Respond privately to questions/comments in digital channels, such as chats.
  • Devote time to answering questions.
  • Assign tasks to small groups of two or three.


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