The Science Behind the Watercooler Break

May 4, 2015

10:29 am

Thanks to remote work and freelancing, the office watercooler break is no longer as ubiquitous as it once was. We take breaks by surfing Facebook, watching YouTube videos, or breaking out our Kindles (or is that just me?). But science gives us some compelling reasons to bring the watercooler break back, at least in spirit.

Corporate lore says that the office watercooler is a sacred space, where ideas get exchanged and unexpected connections are made, boosting productivity for the price of an extremely heavy jug. But the watercooler also symbolizes something simpler: friendship and connection. We bond over styrofoam cups (or, these days, Nalgene bottles).

In one scientific study, talking to a friend for a few minutes actually boosted participants’ memory and ability to suppress distractions – surely skills we’d like to have at work. If we go so far as to forge a best friendship at work, the research says, we become more likely to engage customers, be more productive, have fun at work, have a safe workplace with fewer accidents, innovate and share ideas, feel informed, know our opinions count, and focus on our strengths each day. A close friend at work also makes us see our paycheck more positively.

So how do we bring back the watercooler for today’s digital and distributed workforce?

  • Embrace the quick chat. Sometimes we put off calling friends or family members because we don’t want to get roped into an hour-long conversation. What about calling and saying, “Hey, I’m at work and I’ve just got 15 minutes before my next meeting, but I wanted to say a quick hello”?
  • Deepen your work relationships. Send a personal email, friend them on Facebook, or invite them out for coffee – getting to know them better could make everything run more smoothly during office hours.
  • Use Facebook more wisely. The typical Facebook-powered break probably involves scrolling mindlessly through the News Feed, checking out a few weird photos, and then realizing we’ve wasted 20 minutes. But we would use Facebook better if we actually took the time for a quick back-and-forth chat with a friend who’s also online. (And it goes without saying that banning Facebook at work would be counterproductive.)

Another study found a link between company productivity and social capital, the value of the social networks within the organization. Traditionally seen as “touchy-feely,” relationships may be the very foundation of profit and success. Long live the watercooler.

Image credit: Water Cooler Talk by Rooster Worldwide

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact kira@tech.co.

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