COVID Killed the Watercooler: Microsoft Teams is the New Hub of Teamwork and Culture

Microsoft Teams in the Digital Workplace has replaced the watercooler as the hub of teamwork and culture.

Whether or not you miss chatting around the office watercooler, you have to admit that it’s been missing from the workday experience of teamwork and culture since we’ve all become remote workers. While I am more of a coffee pot type of guy, it is critical to examine the types of interactions that “watercooler” metaphor is supposed to signify and think about what we can do instead, leveraging the Digital Workplace. Some of these new things may be less-good substitutes for what we used to do; some will actually be improvements that allow us to move forward with greater efficiency and less frustration.

New Ways of Being Together with MS Teams 

For its 75 million daily users (and counting), Microsoft Teams is doing some pretty heavy lifting to foster teamwork and culture in businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. With recent slate of improvements and new features (like those fun backgrounds you can now add to video calls), Teams offers many ways to creatively replace through the Digital Workplace aspects of “in person” teamwork and culture that we may never get back. 

Social and Personal Chats 

Why they are important 

These “how was your weekend?” conversations build a sense of teamwork, camaraderie, and shared experience. Personal chatter, especially before meetings, helps us connect across the gulf of cyberspace and remind us that we’re all in this “together”. I also find that knowing a little about my colleagues pets, families, hobbiesand work-from-home struggles gives me insights into their work styles and stuff that may be affecting their work life. This last point is especially important during this pandemic time. 

What to do instead 

Since those conversations are no longer left to serendipity, we have to intentionally make room for them. Lots and lots of organizations are incorporating “check-ins” to their online meetings and calls. Here are a couple ways: 

  • Make space in the agenda. While a check-in isn’t an official part of our daily morning Teams standup agenda, our StitchDX team has unilaterally made space for it. What we may lose in productivity for a few minutes, we gain in humanity.
  • Create a channel. Try devoting a Teams channel to social chat and make an effort to post and respond. When employees see managers sharing bits of their lives and experiences in a channel, it creates a more human connection. Try using hashtags or themed channels (pets, work-from-home desk, bread baking, happy hours). With the new increase to 250 users, these non-business channels may be a welcome relief and healthy distraction.

Reminders and Quick Questions 

Why it is important 

This, for me, is one of the most valuable benefits of proximity. When sharing an office, it is so easy to ask questions:  

Are you coming to the noon meeting?  

Did you have a chance to look at that document I sent you?  

Remind me where that policy document is?  

Beyond the practical and operational, I learn so much from my colleagues. When I need a quick tip or help thinking through a problem, I can quickly pop my head into someone’s office and get the answer I needInformation is literally a step away. 

What to do instead 

If you can’t drop into someone’s office on your way to the watercooler (or coffee pot), there are tools on Teams to get the same information quickly: 

  • Teams Features. Use announcements, importance flags, 1:1 chats and the “Alert me when available” features on Teams to get attention quickly. One clear caveat here, though: Be strategic and targeted. Too much information quickly becomes noise. Just as you would not stand in the lobby of your office and shout your question to the building in hopes someone will respond, don’t post specific questions on company-wide channels unless absolutely necessary.
  •  Better Information Architecture.  We often see organizations struggle with poor information architecture or inconsistent document governance. Invest the time to create a content structure and taxonomy that makes sense and helps employees find what they are looking for the first time. If you don’t know how to start, read this.


Why it is important. 

I am guessing I don’t need to convince you of this., but when teams are dispersed, it becomes easy to get siloed and sidelined. Keeping everyone feeling motivated, connected, and engaged requires greater effort when working remotely as a team, but Teams has some advantages here as well. 

What to do instead 

Teams is built specifically for this purpose. Since a Team” (the central organizing group used in Microsoft Teams) is the central hub for work, creating a Team allows for more efficient organization and collaboration.  

  • Team. When you create a team, you get all the features and benefits of Microsoft Group, including your own SharePoint library, as well as Teams features like group chat and calling. At StitchDX, we use Powell Software to manage governance and consistency with Teams templates so projects or initiatives start with the right set of features, channels and meta-data, and then we customize from there. 
  • Channel.  Within each team, users can create individual channels to reflect phases of a project, different initiatives, or unique topics. Each channel can be open to the entire Team membership or set to “Private” (inviteonly by the channel creator).

Whether it is the actual watercooler or coffee make you miss, or just the opportunities to see your colleagues face to facea well-structured digital workplace can help fill the void. You’ll just have to make your own coffee. 

For more information on how we do any of these things internally or what we’ve seen among our customers, feel free to reach out.  

One important challenge 

Throughout all that I’ve written above, it is important to think about inclusion. How do you build for everyone to participateeven those that may be incapable, too shy or technophobic to fully jump in during a typical Teams or Zoom call? While this was important before, it is absolutely critical during this chaotic time of isolation.  

 Your colleagues need you to make sure everyone has a safe and accessible way to contribute. The quality of your work depends on their input, and it is far too easy to miss the quieter voices.  

What to do 

  • Ask for questions before the meeting or webinar so people have time to prepare. 
  • Offer to do 1:1 or small group trainings so everyone in your meeting knows how to use the tools to participate. 
  • Set up side chats, white boards, or separate threads to allow everyone to contribute. 
  • Notice if some voices are not being heard and reach out to them directly. 
  • Check Out These Important Resources 

As we all transition to what’s next…

I think we can all agree that whatever the next phase of our respective businesses will look like, it will be new, different, and in some ways unpredictable. Teamwork and culture will always matter, though, and our Digital Workplace team can help you shape a strategy that optimizes technology support communication, collaboration, and productivity among and between your remote and in-office workers. Reach out to us anytime.