Meet me at the Watercooler

watercooler

We are delighted to welcome a guest blogger this week Marieke Guy, who also blogs for the Rambling of a Remote Worker blog .

 

Introduction

Marieke

I’m Marieke Guy and I work for the Open Knowledge Foundation as a Community Co-ordinator for the LinkedUp Project and the Open Education Working Group.

I’ve been working remotely for about 6 years now. After the birth of my 3rd child it was a huge ordeal getting to work for a 9am start and was I lucky enough to be given the opportunity to work from home. At the time I worked for a research group called UKOLN based at the University of Bath. Lack of space on campus and efforts to recruit the right people meant that over time quite a few of us ended up as ‘remote workers’. In an effort to create a community around remote working I started writing the Rambling of a Remote worker blog.

In May 2013 I started working for the Open Knowledge Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation that is part of a global movement to open up knowledge around the world and see it used and useful. The Open Knowledge Foundation is probably fairly unique in that it is a truly virtual organization. Our staff sit on 4 different continents and over countless timezones. We communicate primarily using online tools and face-to-face is rare for us.

To support our remote/virtual working we have a suite of tools that we utilize, some are for administrative purposes, such asXero for expenses and Toggl for timekeeping, others are to help us with our work, such as Google drive for documents and Google hangout for meetings, and Trello for project management.

 

Watercooler moments

 

The area that always proves to be the most tricky to facilitate is discussion, especially informal discussion, or the ‘watercooler’ discussions as people like to call them. In the past the term ‘watercooler moment’ referred to a controversial event in a television programme that people would discuss at work the next day. These discussions took place next to the drinks dispenser or watercooler. Being able to discuss those exciting TV moments in a group has slowly disappeared as an activity due to changes in television watching (the rise of streaming services and playback TV), but the need to chat hasn’t. Every organisation continues to need a watercooler.

Prior to my joining the Open Knowledge Foundation they had tried out quite a few IRC chat services. Most had faded by the time I started. People do use things like Twitter and Google Plus but these tend to support discussion with external people, not internal colleagues They’d been trying for some time to answer the question: how do you create a chat space internally?

The current service of choice is Grove.io. Grove is an IRC server that has rich functionality. It gives you archives of your chat history, search, user accounts, channel access management tools, GitHub integration. You can also chose to use the web client or a desktop app, and get notified when someone mentions you by name.

watercooler2

At the Open Knowledge Foundation we have quite a few ‘chat rooms’, some for work team chat, some for cross-team chat for example on community or tech, and we have a watercooler room. The watercooler room has the byline ‘100% social chat. No work stuff’. I’d have to say that this isn’t always the case primarily because the boundaries between work and pleasure are pretty blurred for many of us. This is partly because most of us work for an organisation that is fighting for a cause we passionately believe in: the opening up of knowledge. Politics, technology and the state of the world are fair game. However there are cat pictures, silly web links and lunch dates on there too! The quality of the conversation aside encouraging informal chat remains difficult – people are busy and prioritise work activities. Unfortunately, as many of us know, the bonds created by ‘just having a chat’ are those that build better working relationships.

 

After our last all-staff meet up the subject of social chat came up (again). Suggestions were made that we use a more feature rich platform for our non-work related communications (Diaspora or an inhouse tumblr were mentioned). There seemed to be a reluctance to change platform, but people were all up for social chatting.

So the question isn’t how do you create a chat space internally? It is how do you get people to use a chat space and share a side of themselves that isn’t work facing? Or how do you get people to take their eye off work even for a minute in a virtual organization?

OK, so here are a couple of things that bright sparks at the Open Knowledge Foundation have been doing. One of our team is a DJ on the side and he shares Spotify playlists with us most Fridays. These playlists are great and get us talking. We even ended up with a staff-playlist at our face-to-face event. Someone else has started a form of virtual Chinese whispers, which requires people to draw a picture for a sentence. The sentence gets passes along a virtual queue of people and there is lots of silliness involved. The results are likely to be hilarious. We also had a virtual Christmas party in Google hangouts with virtual party hats and real Christmas carols.

These activities can result in more chat on Grove.io and actually give us a much needed break from work.

So what activities and services are you using to make sure that the watercooler remains an important destination?

Marieke Guy

 

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