Water cooler moments don’t have to disappear in the virtual workplace

A man participates in a video call while wearing a backwards cap and a brightly colored lei.
A man participates in a video call while wearing a backwards cap and a brightly colored lei.
Image: REUTERS/Jill Gralow
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For the fortunate few who can work from home, the pandemic has brought an abrupt end to workplace mingling. Gone are the days of pausing in the office hallway to catch up. Farewell to the gossip dispensed at the break room coffee machine. There was a time not long ago when colleagues would chat as they walked to the conference room; now they log onto Zoom meetings and hit mute.

But not everyone is ready to give up on smalltalk until lockdowns end.

“I got tired of reading article after article where people said we have to go back to the office because we need to have the kinds of in-person interactions that we can only get there,” said MIT management professor Thomas Malone. “They’re wrong. You can get quite a lot of it online with what turns out to be some fairly simple technology.”

Malone thinks he can prove it with a piece of videoconferencing software he built with collaborators at Northeastern University and Seoul National University, called Minglr. (Yes, it is a videoconferencing tool meant to solve a problem with videoconferencing.) The open-source tool—which connects to Jitsi, another free videoconferencing platform—is meant to be used before or after an official meeting. As participants trickle in or out, they’re placed in a virtual lobby, where they can see who else is milling about before the meeting or lingering after it has ended. If two people want to chat, they each indicate their interest and are whisked into a video call to shoot the breeze for a minute or two.

Malone conceived of Minglr with academic conferences in mind. “The most important part of conferences by far is what happens in the hallways,” he said, “not what happens in the meeting rooms.” But the loss of casual conversation has real impacts across professional life.

Informal interactions have been shown to boost cognitive functioning and raise employee morale. Nottingham University Business School researchers found that chatter between healthcare workers at British hospitals played a crucial role in spreading important but sensitive information—for example, which doctors tend to work most quickly, or have the shortest tempers, or seem to be on the edge of burnout.

“It is important not to see these instances of communication as simply gossip,” said Justin Waring, one of the Nottingham researchers, who is now a healthcare organization professor at the University of Birmingham. “They take numerous forms and have a really important role in group dynamics.”

Chance conversations also play an important role in advancing individual employees’ careers. Romy Newman, president of career advice site Fairygodboss, said having the chance to deliver an “elevator pitch” during random run-ins with big shot executives was crucial for her rise through the corporate ranks. “Those impromptu interactions where you bump into a very senior leader are just gone,” she said.

These missed opportunities can make it even harder for people who already struggle to get recognition at work. Even before the pandemic, race and gender divides excluded some workers—but especially Black women—from informal social networks, hindering their advancement. “Populations or personalities that would have been marginalized in a live meeting are more likely to be marginalized in the virtual world,” said Newman.

Companies have taken different approaches to filling the chattering void. There are Slack discussions and Zoom bonding events. Microsoft offers a sort of corporate Facebook it calls Yammer. A startup dubbed Sococo wants companies to create digital office floor plans and invite their employees to control virtual avatars who can walk around and “bump” into each other in the hall.

Minglr intentionally did not try to simulate a virtual hallway for employees to chat in, but attempted to create digital analogs for human behaviors in the virtual world. In some cases, the team believes the digital format allows for super-human mingling that’s even better than what’s possible in person. Online, you can simultaneously indicate your interest in talking to several different people, for example, while at a real life cocktail party you can only lurk on the fringes of one conversation at a time.

All of these imperfect attempts indicate that there’s something missing from the Brady Bunch grids through which remote workers currently face the world. In a real life happy hour, there isn’t just one mega-conversation everyone is forced to take part in. You’re allowed to privately turn and make a face for the benefit of a trusted neighbor, or start a side conversation when someone’s droning on about something terribly boring.

“I expect most video conference systems will include features like this in the future,” said Malone. In the meantime, he plans to use Minglr to give his fall semester students the chance to chat before and after classes. “As long as we still do some of our meetings online, we’ll have a need for something like Minglr.”

Correction: Romy Newman is the president of Fairygodboss, not its CEO.