Ah, the humble water cooler – the keeper of all secrets and inventor of all great ideas in an office. It’s so important to office success, it went virtual with us when the pandemic sent many home to work.
The water cooler is just one office mainstay that holds our professional places and lives together. Even the tools that have evolved – for instance, the Rolodex of the 1950s is today’s cell phone contact list – matter today.
“It’s important not to underestimate the importance of social connection at work. I think it is for that reason that the water cooler has had so much longevity as a mainstay in the office,” says Jan Bruce, CEO and co-founder of meQuilibrium. “It’s not the water, or even the break from work, it’s the opportunity to connect with peers and share experiences.”
Here are the origins of five office mainstays, why they’re still important today and how managers can use them to become better team leaders.
Origin: Luther Haws – a safe water advocate and inventor – created a portable dispensing machine in 1938. It quickly gained popularity in offices, not just for the cool beverage but for the cool, communal spot to gossip and brainstorm. “Watercooler Talk” was born.
Importance today: Watercooler Talk – or any informal gathering around a beverage – can improve employee productivity as much as 15%, a University of Sydney study found.
Lead your team: Watercooler moments don’t happen as easily these days because people working in hybrid situations aren’t physically together as much. So you likely need to intentionally nurture it. Try Zoom and apps such as WaterCooler and Slingshot, to help teams connect virtually and informally.
Plus, you never know what can happen at the water cooler. Let’s let Dean Guida, CEO and founder of Infragistics, share a water cooler anecdote …
I used to have a parrot named Rex and when I traveled, I would board Rex at the local pet shop owned by Eileen. One day I went to my office kitchen to fill up my water bottle and I saw Eileen there. I said to her, ‘What are you doing here?’
‘I just started as a salesperson,’ Eileen replied.
‘That’s great, I am the Founder & CEO of the company,’ I said.
It was a fun surprise for both of us. She had sold the pet shop and, unbeknownst to me, was hired as a salesperson at my company!— Dean Guida
Origin: Office supply company Zephyr American patented the rolling index (thus “Rolodex”) of alphabetized contacts in 1956. Professionals, or their secretaries of the time, could write or type details on the cards and file until the next meeting. One famous businessman’s Rolodex equaled 200,000 pages of contacts and notes!
Importance today: The Rolodex lost its luster to technology (although this Gen Xer still has an outdated one tucked in a desk drawer!) For the most part, cell phone contact lists replaced the Rolodex – and the Yellow Pages, White Pages and every other address book we owned.
Lead your team: Where you keep professional and personal contact lists isn’t what’s important today. Using it to purposefully connect is. Maintain reminders to connect with team members and colleagues and notes on what happened when you last chatted and what you’d like catch up on.
“Any time you have opportunity to get to know your business colleagues on a personal level, it helps your working relationships and creates a sense of belonging and trust,” says Guida.
Origin: The office fax machine evolved through many inventions, starting in the 1860s. By the late 1970s, businesses paid about $20,000 for a fax machine that weighed 100 pounds and took six minutes to transmit one page! By the early 1990s, homeowners paid less than $500 for 15-pound machines that transmitted a page in 20 seconds.
Importance today: We share documents in a variety of ways – email, internet, communication apps and beyond.
Lead your team: With so many options on how to communicate within a team, there are risks that people will be overwhelmed or confused – and just start to ignore the messages. So it’s important to decide as a team the most effective ways to share information. For instance, a specific Slack channel may work for one group and email works better for another. Same goes for individual communication: Let employees know your preferences and ask theirs.
“Work is a social and human experience, and we all need to remember this. Employees and managers who work in person in an office want to share, communicate, and connect with their colleagues,” says Jeanne Meister, Executive Vice President at Executive Networks.
Origin: Chester Carlson used an array of household items to create the first copy in 1930. Xerox made the copy machine an office mainstay in 1959. In addition to creating reams of paper printed with confidential, boring and silly images (remember the smooshed faces?!), the copier created another place for employees to gather and shoot the breeze.
Importance today: The actual machine seems like an office villain today, as more and more businesses try to go paperless. But what it represents – shared information – is still critical to team success.
Lead your team: Share as much information as legally possible about the industry, company and team with employees. When people feel there’s more to a story than what they know, they’ll fill it with misinformation. That’s fertile ground for gossip, resentment and disengagement.
Origin: The office vending machine has been the source of love and hate since the early 1900s, a few years after the first coin-operated, postcard-selling machine was invented. From soda to snacks, cigarettes to candy, employees rave or rant about the contents.
Importance today: We don’t vend like we used to. Companies bolster the food and beverage experience with catered meals, in-house taps and at-home deliveries to remote staff. But the idea behind vending – eating, drinking and gathering – remains an important part of work life.
Lead your team: Make time at least quarterly to “break bread” with your team. Buy each person a favorite vending machine item over a one-on-one. Call in a catered lunch. Go out for happy hour. Connect on a human level.
“The data bears this out: Employees who feel that they have strong social connections and feel supported by colleagues at work have significantly higher engagement than those who feel isolated,” says Bruce. “In short, it’s time that pays off – it also helps people feel comfortable reaching out to others and relying on them for advice, mentoring and problem-solving.”
To that is another water cooler anecdote that shows the water cooler – no matter where it is – works. This from Meister …
It’s the bumping into people across functions that can really advance your idea further and take it in a new direction. My favorite watercooler moment did not happen in person at a water cooler but in a group dinner with colleagues from my publisher when they gave input to the title of a book I was writing at the time. The book title was then born and published as The 2020 Workplace – the original title was much longer and not nearly as impactful.— Jeanne Meister