The wired water cooler is no substitute for face time

It Isn’t So Lonely Around the Water Cooler

Working virtually from home, at least part of the time, has become the norm in many companies. The more senior you are the more likely you have the authority to decide when and where you work.

Working virtually no doubt has its benefits: no long commute on the train, flexible hours, problem solving in your pajamas.

It’s gotten so prevalent that companies don’t even have offices for a lot of their staff and do “hoteling.” You call ahead and reserve an office when you absolutely must be there.

So, what’s wrong with this picture?

But being isolated from other employees can be lonely. This isolation is part of what a recent article in the Harvard Business Review called Work and the Loneliness Epidemic.

The author, Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy, former Surgeon General of the U.S., quotes a Harvard study that showed many employees — and half of CEOs — report feeling lonely in their roles.

He, says, “But to truly solve loneliness requires the engagement of institutions where people spend the bulk of their time: families, schools, social organizations, and the workplace.

“Companies in particular have the power to drive change at a societal level not only by strengthening connections among employees, partners, and clients but also by serving as an innovation hub that can inspire other organizations to address loneliness.”

Bring Back the Water Cooler

There are plenty of jokes about conversations around the water cooler. Those with lots of experience under their belts probably don’t miss the small talk around the water cooler. But for young people starting out, who are still expected to show up every day, this lack of communication with their bosses and other staff can cripple learning.

There probably isn’t even a water cooler to be found in most offices. You take a sip at a fountain outside the rest room or bring your own water bottle.

There is book learning and water cooler learning. New professionals are losing out on “learning at the knee” of the people who went before them.

The ability to pop into someone’s office when you’re stuck on something, a shoulder for a virtual cry when everything goes wrong one day, the buzz on the company grapevine that’s passed around to colleagues over paper cups of water – darn it, just the companionship that engenders trust and love. I know that’s a strong word.

Communication and Collaboration

But I can say I really loved some of my co-workers when I was still clocking in at an office. We worked side by side during over-nighters to get out a presentation, and then shared the sheer joy of winning the business and going out to hoist a few in celebration.

Bumping shoulders and clinking glasses is a tribal rite that goes back centuries. It’s a rite that encourages communication and collaboration among team members.

Then there are the intangibles that you share with being around the people who are pushing the ball up the hill with you to reach the company’s goals. You know, it’s just plain lonely for young people today

The notion of the apprentice is still valid, except now the master is out of the office most of the time. This doesn’t make for a good learning experience.

Are Skype, conference calls, or FaceTime the answer?

I don’t think so. You can’t clasp the shoulder of your apprentice with an “atta boy” on Skype. I’m glad I’m not just starting out.

Leave a Reply


  1. Very interesting post, Jeannette, and one that I can relate to. I worked in an office environment for almost 18 years. I’ve worked alone at home since 1993, so that is 24 years. I really agree with you that working in an office is critical for young people who are just beginning their careers. I made lifelong friendships during my years in the office environment. And I agree with you that going out for drinks or lunch with your co-workers is a great way to bond. But the world has changed and in-person fraternizing is becoming increasingly rare. That’s where attending conferences and meet-ups have stepped in to take the place of in-office relationship building. That, and the ability to nurture relationships online is the way it is now and I don’t think we will ever go back.

    • Doreen — my post was probably just wistful thinking. I’ve certainly made friendships online — and I consider you one of those friends — but I sure would like to meet my online friends in person. At my last agency, I managed the PR account for one of the Big Four accounting firms’ consulting arm. No one worked in the office — you could roll a bowling ball down an aisle and it wouldn’t have hit anyone. We were on conference calls constantly, where half the participants weren’t even listening but multitasking. A new world, indeed.

  2. The workplace is changing with many opting to work from home and make Skype conference calls whilst outside the office. With office space becoming limited, working from home benefits the organisation. Conversations can still spring up around the water cooler and when making teas/coffees but perhaps less so.

    • Phoenicia — some organizations do make an effort to encourage their employees to engage. My former agency put out bagels and cream cheese every Friday and that was a place to grab a bite but also to chat with your co-workers.

  3. Working from home has its benefits and so has working in an office. Personally like both ways of working but must say I prefer a combination. At the moment taking a BA means going to university one or two times a week and the rest you are on your own. A bit more time at university would have been preferable considering that you exchange opinions with other students that are valuable.

    • Catarina — congratulations for such an arduous undertaking. I don’t know that I could crack the books now. Since I graduated from college (no internet), so much college work is done online, from reading, to handing in assignments, to taking tests. It’s certainly more efficient, but I do think something is lost when your classroom presence is so limited and you don’t get to exchange ideas with the professor and other students.

  4. You summed that up nicely, Jeannette. One of my 30 year old friends just elected to leave a position he’s worked remotely for three years in order to get into an office and that water-cooler atmosphere. He’s a very team oriented person, so it’s a great move for him.

    I think it’s easier to work remotely, not only when we’re older, but also depending on the work that we’re doing.

    We could get water coolers in our homes. 🙂

    • RoseMary — how interesting that a Millennial wants to go offline and into he office. Certainly, if you’re a writer or freelancer, you are much better off now with the benefit of email, the internet, Skype and all the rest. Well, we could get water coolers at home, but it would be darn lonely!

  5. Jeannette, I don’t think it’s just the younger employees who are losing out when work communities disappear. My work with older entrepreneurs shows that community is one of the fundamentals to success. Community allows us to develop ideas, test theories, refresh and grow through interaction. We are social creatures. Isolating ourselves, whether in a corner or home office is not a good long-term strategy. While I think it’s great to have flexibility in where we work, I don’t think isolation is an ideal anyone should be aiming for.

    • Debra — agree with everything you say. Older entrepreneurs have usually come from working in larger organizations so it’s expected they would miss the sense of community. Let’s face it, it’s lonely being an entrepreneur.

  6. I have from time to time managed remote teams. I really felt that by not requiring a specific office location I was giving myself access to a much greater breadth of talent. But the other thing I remember is that with some of them, once you got them on the phone you couldn’t get them off. Lonely, I guess.

    • Ken — there is the benefit, as you say, of being able to access talent from every office. Maybe they weren’t lonely — you were just too interesting for them to let go!

  7. I totally agree with this post.
    As a middle management supervisor, I rub elbows with subordinates and supervisors alike. It is not official, but unofficial meetings where I get most of my information from.
    From supervisors, I get information about policy changes which might be occurring before they are made public. This gives me a chance to prepare for these changes.
    As for my subordinates, it is in these change meetings I truly get a sense of how they are feeling about work. Sometimes, I can destroy problems before they manifest in the unit.
    Thanks for sharing.

    • William — in my view, there is no substitute for staff meetings. You can get a feel from them not only by what they say, but their body language which is just as important.