Archive for Small talk

Why Small Talk Around the Water Cooler is Critical to Learning

Most of the people I know are working virtually from home at least part of the time. The more senior you are the more likely you have the authority to decide when and where you work.

I once joked at a seminar that you could roll a bowling ball down the halls of a Big Four firm that shall remain nameless and it wouldn’t hit anyone. That’s how empty the offices and cubicles are.

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 could be so bad about this? Free at last from suits and ties! The demise of face time!

So, what’s wrong with this picture?

As you were expecting, there is a downside. 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 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 the team.

Then there are the intangibles I can’t even articulate that come 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. There is just some knowledge that you can’t get from Google. 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.

Is Skype 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.