What do you think the typical manager might say if you told them their employees don’t gossip and engage one another enough in social interaction at work?
Most managers know about the water cooler effect. However, not enough understand the meaning of the concept and how it relates to performance and collaboration. People thinking about how to support collaboration and performance need to keep in mind the simple fact that employees don’t only gather around the water cooler or coffee pot to get a drink. They often use getting a drink of water, or a cup of coffee, as a pretext for taking a break, and information sharing happens incidentally as they interact in that informal process, sometimes playfully, with their peers and, in exceptional organizations, their managers.
A couple of studies released this summer dealing with performance and collaboration in teams merit consideration in this regard. Not so much for what they specifically say about performance and collaboration as much as what they imply about the importance of social relationships to both.
The consulting firm RW3 recently released a study of distributed teams, reporting that “40 percent of members on virtual teams believe their groups are underperforming”. We previously discussed such distributed teams, noting that team members often disagree with team leaders about who is, and is not, on the team. Michael Schell, CEO for RW3, noted in Chief Learning Officer magazine that, of the teams studied, “Half of these teams never meet in person…They don’t get time to create any kind of rapport, which is very important when you’re working across cultures.”
While the RW3 research points to a salient issue in distributed teams, it fails to acknowledge that merely recognizing and talking about the impact of cultural variation on performance and collaboration, whether in informal online meetings or in training, fails to address the main issue. Members of distributed teams perform more effectively when they understand one another as people as well as employees. Specifically,
Collaboration means getting to know that other employees possess expertise on this or that topic, but also developing comfort with one another by sharing significant symbols relating to self, family, friends, and social activities, thereby understanding one another as people.
Merely orchestrating virtual water cooler meetings on a regular basis does not address the issue, especially when management coordinates the meetings. As I observed in a previous post on the importance of empathy and collaboration to social business design,
People who identify with one another are more likely to share information proactively, without waiting for others to ask for it, because they understand how their own work relates to that of other people and see the flow of work from multiple points of view, spanning silos. Too many social computing experts view collaboration from within a command and control prism, assuming people collaborate because coordination and communication are part of their job description.
Effective collaboration really requires proactively sharing information with those it affects, not simply reacting to information requests. It means anticipating the future impact of actions you take on the responsibilities of other employees or business partners, or the needs of customers. People really don’t do this well unless they see other employees, and customers, as people too. Indeed, this is one of the main reasons that social networks increase in importance as collaboration decreases as a face to face activity.
Recent research on collaboration, performance, and job satisfaction in co-located teams provides useful findings to consider in thinking about what social networks add to the mix in distributed teams.