An unfortunate consequence of the Mayer Memorandum and the trail of predominantly mediocre comment washing behind it is that it has over-romanticised what we term the “watercooler moment”. In sugared high-definition, like the stock photos that irritatingly adorn the blog sites of those who can afford them but should know better, we imagine half a dozen perfectly diverse fumigated professionals gathered around a fountain contemplating their next creative assignment (probably a motivational poster, looking at them). No creases of worry on a brow, no flickering distracted eyes, no sheathed knives. Quite, simply, an entirely regrettable baked-in modern fiction.
Somewhere in the imagination of those locked behind cellular office doors (or commissioning stock photos) is the notion that the ground troops like one another, get along, are self-deprecating and wish to see each other succeed, are happy to share their ideas without fear of them being pinched and credit given to the tealeaf, have no actual work of their own to do, are each as warmly gregarious as the next, have long dispensed with the propensity to engage in trivial smalltalk, are themselves each a resplendent fountain of uninhibited creativity, and mysteriously all seem to need hydrating at the same time.
Of course the “watercooler” is clearly a metaphor for points in a space at which people may gather – but the refresh point remains one of the most common, and in some workplaces the only. The fact that people still refuse to trust one of the cleanest water supplies in the world means someone dumps on their own their carbon footprint by shipping in water from the Peak District or Fiji. Nevertheless here are some “watercooler moment” realities:
- They rarely happen – we seldom visit the “watercooler” at the same time – we often try to do so when no-one is there because we don’t want to wait or talk, as we have a mountain of work to get through and our mind is focussed on something related, and we don’t want to get waylaid talking about Strictly
- It’s not always good news – gatherings are often driven by the need to share negativity, gossip, rumour – because “misery loves company” – and therefore the wistful sight of colleagues spontaneously collaborating at the refreshment funnel might actually be a window on the fermentation of revolt
- If it happens at all, it’s usually quick – machinery has been designed and refined to dispense drinks fast – gone are the days of standing around a warming teapot, no-one wants you dithering when there is important stuff to do
- If it happens at all, it’s usually crap – no-one shows up at the watercooler with a project plan, a prototype, an intent to recruit beta testers – the usual conversation at these random gathering points is trivial, while the interesting stuff gets talked about when we seek out colleagues and invite them to meet and talk at a place we or they choose, away from wagging ears, where we are able to attend prepared
- It happens more readily online, throughout the day on both internal and external social tools, with a wider group of participants you have selected, who are generally more interested in what you do and say, and more interesting to you – which presents a problem both for organisational leadership and stock photographic agencies
Social interaction that may spontaneously lead to the birth of the next sliced bread requires positive intervention, as tummeling delivers (more about it in the clip if you have missed previous posts on the subject). Otherwise you will just be left with a group of individuals, a large plastic bottle that should contain water but is invariably empty, a sleeve of flimsy plastic cups, an uncomfortable silence pock-marked with trivia, and one of the most perpetuated yet ridiculous myths in the workplace.
Time to give it up.