Digital Distance and the Water Cooler Effect


This week’s news that Verizon will buy Yahoo’s internet business has resurfaced Marissa Mayers’s 2013 decision to ban Yahoo employees from working from home. Explaining her decision, she said: “People are more productive when they’re not alone, but they’re more collaborative and innovative when they’re together. Some of the best ideas come from pulling two different ideas together.” (Marissa Mayer Defends Her Work From Home Ban)
This shows what I have called “Serendipity as Strategy”. Companies are intentionally creating bottlenecks so that their employees are more likely to interact with each other. Most of these examples are dependent upon designing physical spaces for employees to work in the same place, at the same time. As MIT Professor Alex “Sandy” Pentland explains, these interactions are important because with “increased cohesion likely comes an increase in things such as shared tacit knowledge, shared attitudes and work habits, and social support.” (The Water Cooler Effect: Fewer Memos, More Coffee Breaks).

The Importance of Proximity

Meanwhile there is a growing number of colleagues that are not co-located, whether it is remote working, telecommuting or working across offices in different cities and countries. While early assessments claimed the ease and low-cost of the transmission of information would lead to The Death of Distance, research by Ben Waber demonstrates that proximity continues to be important. In one study “engineers who shared a physical office were 20% more likely to stay in touch digitally than those who worked elsewhere.” (Workspaces That Move People).
There is clearly a need in today’s digital age to find better ways to work across digital distance. The problem is not about transmitting information more quickly or cheaply. In a moment’s notice, we can have a video chat with someone in London, Amsterdam or San Francisco. The problem is that it is just as easy to disconnect from the conversation once the business at hand has been completed. What we’ve lost are the discoveries we made while we were in search of something else, walking in the hallway, waiting in lunch line or standing by the water cooler.

Unstructured Time

A step in the right direction is “structured unstructured time”, highlighted in two separate articles in Harvard Business Review:

  • In The Secrets of Great Teamwork, Martine Haas and Mark Mortensen describe it as, “time blocked off in the schedule to talk about matters not directly related to the task at hand.”
  • In Communicate Better With Your Global Team, Tsedal Neely states, “So in a sense, when I talk about structuring unstructured time, it may feel very inefficient to spend six, seven, or eight minutes in a one-hour meeting doing this conversation. But at the end of the day, it really buys improved work relationships, improved work results, and can be extremely efficient.”

It is an incredibly simple idea, something each of us can do in our next conference call. But it is of such importance that management should not leave it up to each individual. Specifically since today’s work environment is often overly focused on ‘work-related’ activities, many employees may not believe such activities would be well seen by management. Leaders need to clearly communicate that it is important to take time to connect and bond with coworkers and that this is work-related.

Overcoming digital Distance

If you lead a team that works at a digital distance, one of the most important things that you can do is arrange for your staff to connect and speak to each other on what is traditionally seen as ‘non-work related’ topics. This should be done on an ongoing basis. So pick a frequency that fits with the realities of your organization. A good place to start is for each employee to have a get-to-know-each-other chat with a different colleague each month. That will help build rapport which will be crucial for effectively working together. Just as Linkedin CEO Jeff Weiner said of his practice of scheduling nothing, “don’t leave unscheduled moments to chance. [They are] the best investment you can make in yourself and the single most important productivity tool I use.”

Shared Value as Basis for Business

There once was a Business Leader who imagined that business could be a force for good in society. “Business doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game with winners and losers,” she thought to herself, “business can bring out the best out of all of us and be a tool to find creative solutions to the world’s most pressing problems!”
I should start by confessing that over the past three years I have been wholly dedicated to an entrepreneurial venture.  I frame this as a confession because I’ve spent most of my academic and professional life focused on international development, involved in initiatives ranging from microfinance to workforce development and grassroots politics.
The circles I have frequented tend to have the predisposition that Midas’ touch converts everything to gold, destroying life in the process.
Reflecting upon the cognitive dissonance generated from being both historically anti-business and undeniably in business now has lead me to the broader tension between business, society, and morality.  In various forms, this has been a central concern from the inception of the idea of capitalism in the 17th and 18th centuries, as economist Albert Hirschman lays out in The Passions and the Interests
The invisible hand was hoped to be a force for good — leading people to unknowingly work to the benefit of others.  In more recent times, we’ve heard about B Corps, BoP Protocol, Corporate Social Responsibility, Fair Trade, inclusive markets, the Triple Bottom Line, Responsible Capitalism, Social Business and an endless list of other terms which present a claim for a way of running business that is good for business and for society.  Recently, leading business thinker and strategist Michael Porter has joined the chorus by arguing for a new paradigm: Creating Shared Value.
For critics, these repeating calls of a business for good sounds like Aesop’s fable of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. It is one thing to say, ‘We’re conducting business differently’ and it is another for it to be believed.  This skepticism is augmented by cases where companies have made a PR move focused on appearances rather than substances. Skeptics are thus dubious of the motivations of any business working with the community.
But business does not have to be a zero sum game. There are exceptional individuals in the business world that are undoubtedly a tremendous force for good.
Reflecting on my experience, I would suggest a faith in karma pays dividends. We’ve gone from small scale societies where everyone knows each other and what they have done to anonymous metropolitan spaces with highly mobile individuals, and now the pendulum is swinging back. In an increasingly hyper-connected world, information and reputation spreads easily as Guy Vaynerchuk’s highlights in his discussion of personal branding.
My business has worked hard to maintain ties with the nonprofit sector that I came from.  Initially, it was just pro-bono work and a way to keep my feet on both sides of the fence.  We started offering our services at no cost to organizations like the International Federation for the Red Cross and Red Crescent without any objective, just thinking it was the right thing to do.  This decision has led to a testimonial, new commercial leads, an International Project of the Year Employee Engagement Award and even mention in Harvard Business Review.  This could not have worked out better if I had planned it. Not only because I could not have predicted it, but more importantly because such a transactional and strategic approach would have killed the sequence before it had even begun.
The central take away from the Shared Value approach is that we each have different things to offer and different needs at any particular moment.  The cynical interpretation of this is that business can reap the money while claiming to provide others some nebulous value.
The wiser approach, for all involved, is to explore the multitude of things we have to offer in partnership.
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Employee Engagement misses a Network Perspective

Almost all of us have had the experience of encountering someone far from home, who, to our surprise, turns out to share a mutual acquaintance with us. This kind of experience occurs with sufficient frequency that our language even provides a cliché to be uttered at the appropriate moment of recognizing mutual acquaintances. We say, “My it’s a small world.” – Stanley Milgram, The Small-World Problem

The Org Chart

As companies have grown in size, it becomes increasingly difficult to fathom in its entirety. The org chart tends to be used as short hand for the subcomponents. There’s department X, Y and Z. But who works in those departments, and what do they do? In very large organizations, it can begin to feel like a very big jigsaw puzzle with sections coming together to form clear images while the rest are grouped into generic piles by color or texture with little understanding of how they fit together.
But the org chart is not the only means we have for making sense of the organization. Through conversations with colleagues we learn about other areas of the company and how they fit together. When these conversations are strictly work related, they overlap with the formal hierarchy. Whereas non-work conversations open up new realms for engaging with each other and consequently for indirectly surfacing topics about the company from other angles.

Friendship and Network

The role of friendships in the workplace is well established, it is one of a handful of questions that Gallup monitors for Employee Engagement Q10: “I have a best friend at work.” Yet, while most articles about the importance of friendships in the workplace highlight how they lead to increased productivity, employee happiness, ability to challenge each other’s ideas and a sense of comradery they fail to highlight how these individual relationships link up to shape the larger company.

The field of Employee Engagement needs to incorporate insight from the field of network science to fully understand why relationships matter. Otherwise one will overlook the spillover benefits that are best understood by looking at organizational networks. If employees are only linked to a friend the bond with the organization is relatively weak. But what often happens is that this bond is much stronger because I am not only linked to my friends at work, but also indirectly to my friends’ friends, many of whom are also linked. In this way, relationships at work not only form a tie between two people, but an interlocking web of relationships. For a rich account of this network perspective, look at Andrew Parker and Rob Cross’s concise piece Increasing Employee Engagement Through Organizational Network Analysis.
Furthermore, friendship forms for different reasons than the org chart (although it certainly is influenced by this formal structure) since that is who we spend time with. The benefit of having a different set of causal motivations for forming social ties than work ties, a different set of relationships form, which thereby are more to bridge disparate groups and link organizational silos.

Small World Phenomena

Let’s take a closer look at one of the most famous experiments of Harvard social psychologist Stanley Milgram, his 1967 small-world experiment. In it he identified people who were physically and socially distant from Cambridge, Massachusetts and gave them a task to deliver an envelope to someone they knew on a first name basis that might be able to get it to a target recipient in Boston. While many estimated that this was an impossible task, many of the letters were delivered in just a couple of links.
The associated idea of “the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” is based on the actor’s near central role in the entertainment universe. Whereas other actors typically stick to one genre (think Jim Carrey & comedy), Kevin has been in a wide range of genres putting him in touch with a variety of co-stars.

Clusters and Bridges

These examples illustrate two network terms ‘clusters’ and ‘bridges.’ Clusters are groups of individuals who have many shared ties, whereas a bridge is a relationship between two individuals across such clusters where there are few or no other relationships between those clusters. If workplace relationships were 100% work related all the time, they would be very defined clusters that perfectly overlap with the org chart and the senior leadership would be the only bridging set of ties connecting different departments. Fortunately, this is never completely the case. Conversations emerge around the watercooler and the cafeteria, or through actively managing the network through a designated “network weaver,” as Valdis Krebs and June Holley call them, or through a variety of interventions aimed at designing such interactions.
Friendship at work provides an array of localized benefits, between the two friends. Furthermore it connects colleagues into a wider web of relationships which is important not only for feeling part of the larger whole but also understanding how the organization works beyond one’s immediate realm.
More on Employee Engagement.

The Power Of Conversation At Work

Every morning she walked past the reception into the elevator and pressed the button for the 7th floor.  She walked down the long corridor and turned left, at which point she could see her corner office at the end of the hall.  Her days were packed with meetings, until the time came for her to retrace her steps and go home.  This occurred day in and day out, until someone made two rather mundane observations – she had never spoken to the majority of the staff in her division, and this was a problem. 
This vignette was inspired by a story shared with me by Alan Arnett, founder of The Exploration Habit.  A suggestion was made that the leader in the vignette make it a priority to stop and talk to someone new each time she was going in or out of the office.  Despite spending her days in meetings, this leader found it hard to approach staff that she had never spoken to.  How would she break the ice?  Would they be nice or just stare blankly? How would she explain why today she stopped to talk to them, after years of just walking past without even a glance or a nod?
Conversation is like a muscle. Without exercise, it atrophies.  And just as marathon runners and sprinters each have different muscle composition ranging from slow-twitch and fast-twitch, some individuals are better at presenting in meetings and others are better in spontaneous conversation. But it isn’t due to some genetically determined trait that we’re stuck with, exercise can strengthen the conversational muscle.
The leader found it challenging to change her behavior, but the hardest part was that first encounter.  Each time it would become progressively easier; until it ceased to be a concern; until it became habit. It is natural to feel overwhelmed with taking that first step, since breaking the ice is the hardest part.  Pedro Medina, social entrepreneur, educator and catalyst, has developed a methodology called SERENDIPITY, which lays out the process from identifying the person to approach to building the relationship. Medina understands serendipity “not just as the happy accident, but as an intentioned happy accident, a directed happy accident, a strategic happy accident.”
Many of us have observed the negative effects of closed-off behavior described in the vignette, either in organizational leaders, or perhaps even in ourselves.  And while there are countless experts offering advice on networking, ranging from Harvey Mackay’s Dig Your Well Before You’re Thirsty to Keith Ferrazzi’s Never Eat Alone, such solutions are generally focused on the individual rather than the organization.  That’s why I was excited to see Anand Rao’s recent post,Why You Need to Build a Culture of Conversations that begins from a deep understanding of the value conversations play in organizational effectiveness.
The biggest danger from the above vignette is that each of us see this as an individual challenge that we need to overcome alone.  As Anand tells us, it isn’t just about setting up more meetings on the calendar.

“The culture of conversations goes beyond creating deliberate opportunities to converse. It requires a purposeful intent on the part of the organization to encourage its employees to participate in conversations, and among others share tacit knowledge.”

Does your organization create safe spaces for such conversation?
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