Building Online Communities Around the Wired Water Cooler

With so many employees working virtually and scattered around the globe, is the water cooler extinct as a place to exchange ideas? Well, maybe in person, but the wired water cooler is emerging as a force in employee engagement.

Companies are creating online communities where employees can pull in the information they need when they want it and engage in conversations with other employees.

How empowering – employees expecting their companies to serve up information that is interesting, entertaining, useful and, most of all, authentic. If it doesn’t smell right, they will know and vent online with each other. Welcome to the new world of the wired water cooler!

Pfizer, American Express and Tiffany Are Doing it Right

At a recent panel discussion, Pfizer communications executive Robert Libbey said his company’s communication funnel is “almost too successful and it’s not always easy to control the fire hose of information” inundating employees. That is the challenge faced by many companies in a wired world.

Sponsored by the New York Chapter, International Association of Business Communicators (NYIABC), the panel also included Audrey Gray, vice president, executive communications for American Express Company, and Bill Carr, director, internal communications, Tiffany & Co., who discussed how their companies are using their intranets to connect and interact with employees.

Pfizer’s Transformation

"Robert Libbey"

Robert Libbey

When Mr. Libbey, who is senior director, global colleague communications for Pfizer, took a comprehensive look at the company’s various internal outlets in 2008, he found 400-plus news and information intranet sites that weren’t connected and almost impossible to manage.

Fast forward to 2011. Pfizer scrapped the old system (in 2009) and now manages a corporate news channel, with underlying SharePoint 2007 technology that is easy to manipulate. “We went from bricks to play dough,” he said, explaining the malleability of the new technology.

The corporate news bureau pushes out nine to 10 stories a week. He said there is no “spin” on stories – with the company informing employees about the good and the bad and encouraging comments. The content sometimes is repurposed and posted on Pfizer’s external company website. “We assume that anything we send to employees is likely to be seen by outsiders.”

In 2010, with more than 30 editions tailored for business units, functions, markets and locations, the new Pfizer site had 162,000 unique users, 5.2 million article views and nearly 60 million page views, with savings in the millions in development and maintenance costs.

Community Building

In response to the fire hose of information Pfizer colleagues face each day with all that they can access externally and internally, Mr. Libbey said that part of his company’s  solution is to let employees create their own intranet home page and choose the information they want to receive.

To this end, Pfizer has embraced internal social media – paralleling the company’s active participation in external social media – and created its own Facebook-like community called “MyWorld.” Any employee can join – all have a profile – and use the 250-character micro blog feature to connect with others and follow the micro blogging of others.

Employees can also start conversations on the company message board about almost any topic. The comments are not vetted first. “People are going to have these conversations anyway,” said Mr. Libbey, and rarely does a post have to be removed because it didn’t conform to guidelines.

The World of Tiffany

"Bill Carr"

Bill Carr

With 9,000 employees around the world, Tiffany is using its intranet and other interactive communications to help connect employees and share best practices. Bill Carr, director of internal communications, said Tiffany recently consolidated its corporate headquarters in a new location with the latest high-tech equipment.

The company just launched “BlueTube,” a digital signage tool that will provide a rich, interactive experience for employees to connect with the company and each other.

With stores in far-flung locations, it isn’t possible for employees to gather around the water cooler to exchange ideas. He said that a very popular Tiffany tradition is the annual holiday video. Employees look forward to it every year with great anticipation.

In the most recent video, Tiffany sales professionals share tips that have worked for them in building relationships with customers. One described how she sends personal, hand-written notes to her customers, inviting them to visit and see the new collections. These are greatly appreciated and help to build customer loyalty.

“We still have a long way to go,” said Mr. Carr, “but we’re excited about new opportunities to use interactive tools to inform, educate and inspire our employees, while building engaged communities that can interact and learn from each other.”

It Isn’t Boring at American Express

"Audrey Gray"

Audrey Gray

Audrey Gray, vice president, executive communications, began with a quote from Henry James: “The only rule is never be boring.”  You’ve got to keep employees engaged with information that is informative, interesting and authentic. She stressed that authenticity in marketing is actually respect for one’s audience.

Amex’s intranet “The Square” hosts 10 different blogs, company news, tools for accessing company information, and a news story every day, delivered to 63,000 employees globally.  She reiterated what the other speakers said – use “hot headlines,” short quotes, and liberal use of bullet points and subheads. “We’ve changed our writing style so that we don’t use any corporate speak. It needs to be real.”

The most popular feature on “The Square” thus far has been a “live blog” of the company’s annual senior management meeting. Her team was at the meeting and wrote posts all day long for two days, more than 100 in total. “Employees felt they were let in the door,” she said.

Junking the Old Water Cooler

If you read a blog I wrote a while back about the water cooler you know how important I feel it is to bump shoulders with your colleagues. Connections are critical to learning. But let’s face it, there isn’t time and employees are widely scattered, making the wired water cooler an attractive alternative. Besides, most people are glued to their computers all day – so if they can’t get to the water cooler, why not bring the water cooler to them?

How about it? Is your company turning your intranet into a wired water cooler where employees can hang out in chat rooms and form communities with like interests? Let us know.

Leave a Reply


  1. Very interesting article — thank you. I’m transitioning from real estate sales back to a career in communications. So much has changed since I worked in corporate internal communications, and I was happy to read that companies are really embracing social media for their employees — and not just their customers — for information and communication.

    • Thanks, Jennifer. Social media has created a new two-way communications channel. Employees want to be heard and now they can: with management and their fellow employees. That’s what’s exciting to me.

  2. Jeannette, this is a very timely post – I know of several organizations who are trying to do this exact sort of thing at the moment. It’s interesting because while everyone agrees that it would be a good thing to do and have (the wired social interaction between employees), there are a lot of questions around how to actually make it work, rather than having it turn into another unused corporate resource. Do you have ideas about that? What are best practices for promoting user adoption of this sort of thing?

  3. Danny — You’ve just asked a question that could be the subject of another post. Personally, I think the best promotion is commitment from senior management that they care about their employees and they are listening. If it’s truly a two-way communication then employees will get answers to their questions, they will have unfiltered access to their colleagues and online communities will take on a life of their own.

  4. Fantastic post Jeannette! I’ve always loved the story about how ceased to exist once Best Buy gave employees a forum to gripe, but more importantly, responded to their grievances. Thanks for sharing with us the great news that some companies are starting to get it!

  5. These are wonderful ideas to bring employees closer together! You’re right about the importance of staff interaction in the workplace and also about how difficult it is to actually achieve that. People get busy and sometimes stay at their desks for 99% of their workdays, making it impossible to get up and socialize with one another. Intranet and online community building like this is a great alternative! Even though I prefer verbal communication at the office (it breaks up the monotony and the computer screen staring contest) online interaction could be beneficial to employees. I liked your comment about bringing the water cooler directly to them – how true.

    I have to wonder how much this strategy would differ from one company to another, though. Larger corporations’ employees may have more of a discussion going at any given time, but smaller businesses’ employees have the opportunity to actually be heard through the noise. Do you think it would be effective both ways, or is it more one-sided?

  6. Jill – Actually the wired water cooler could be more important for small companies that have many virtual employees as a cost-saving measure (less office space to rent) or because of the nature of the business., i.e., sales people on the road. I think it works in any situation — large or small company. In my earlier blog “Why Small Talk Around the Water Cooler is so Critical to Learning” about the water cooler dying as a place to engage employees, I lamented the loss of personal communication. But I guess you can’t stop progress.

  7. Great examples Jeannette and if you think about it the wired water cooler is the natural succession to the company newsletters that used to get published. I can identify with what Pfizer is doing as I worked for the company many years ago and the one thing that struck me is that they did truly care about employees and it looks like that is still happening.

  8. Thanks, Susan. Not surprising, based on your experience, that Pfizer is way out front in deploying social media for employee engagement.

  9. Nice post! I like the AMEX wording of “never be boring.” I also appreciate that they let employees look in through an open window at the world of senior leadership. Each must know what the other is doing in order to make the company work well… and more importantly for everyone to find a place for job satisfaction.