Before terms like hybrid work became part of our vocabulary, there were water cooler conversations. And while you probably could do without water cooler gossip, you might be longing for the physical spaces that made office life a little more human and interesting pre-pandemic. Enter the virtual water cooler – a digital solution for fostering informal gatherings with your coworkers.

What is a virtual water cooler?

A virtual water cooler can take place in a messaging app or on a Zoom call. It serves the same purpose as an in-person water cooler: facilitating social interactions between coworkers who may work in different teams (and now in different locations).

“At Toptal, we built a virtual water cooler within our intranet that houses multiple different topics from ‘pet lovers’ to ‘working moms’ and from ‘home improvement’ to ‘bookclub.’ All of these feed into their own channels in our company Slack, where topics are also auto-generated by the Donut app in some cases,” shares Michelle Labbe, Chief People Officer for Toptal, a fully remote company with more than 1,000 core team members and a network of more than 10,000 freelancers.

“Donut will ping the channel with a question or prompt on a fitting topic, and the responses can help spur connections and conversations that maybe wouldn’t have happened without.”

Benefits of a virtual water cooler

Virtual water coolers foster company culture and build a sense of camaraderie and collaboration in geographically dispersed teams. “There’s so much head-scratching about ways to keep fully remote and hybrid teams working collaboratively and cohesively, and efforts to keep people connected on more personal topics can be very beneficial,” says Labbe.

“Similar to how the physical office water cooler works, a virtual cooler can help facilitate connections on a deeper level outside of routine meetings that mostly stick to the business at hand.”

A virtual water cooler creates organic team-building moments that are very different from, say, hosting a team-building event once a quarter.

Tips for creating a virtual water cooler

But just like some Zoom happy hours turned out to be underwhelming in practice, it’s easy for a virtual water cooler to go wrong. This often happens if a company sets one up and fails to nurture the space, according to Labbe. Below she shares her tips for successfully creating a virtual water cooler for your team.

1. Keep things fresh

“Whatever format your virtual water cooler is in, keep it fresh,” recommends Labbe. “Find ways to spur conversation and encourage regular chatter that has to do with business or personal topics.”

For example, you can create a daily coffee break moment to encourage the creation of a ritual where people come together for a casual virtual chat. Or share conversation prompts around topics such as favorite vacation spots or sports. You can even incentivize people to use the virtual water cooler by hosting contests and games with small prizes for participation.

2. Segment topics into their own channels

You’ll also want to segment topics into their own channels of communication. Whether you use a messaging platform like Hive or have an internal communication platform, make sure to create different streams of conversations that will allow people to connect over a specific interest or feel inspired to contribute to a conversation. If you leave the frame of discussion too open without a starting point, your virtual water cooler will probably fizzle out.

3. Gather ideas from your team

On that note, gather topic ideas from your team. “The water cooler should be in place for them and support team connectivity, so they should have input on water cooler topics,” says Labbe.

4. Create a safe space

Finally, it’s important to create a safe space where people will feel comfortable contributing. The purpose of a water cooler is to be fun and authentic, but in order for that to happen, professional boundaries are still key. ”While the purpose of the virtual water cooler is to help facilitate camaraderie and communication across the team via fun discussions, you want to be sure it’s still a professional space,” she adds.

“Avoid potential issues by giving employees clear parameters for communication. What applies to your internal communications policy for email when discussing anything work-related, for example, should apply to your virtual water cooler. There should be no room for profanity, harassment, threatening language, etc.”