Remote workers want to re-create those watercooler moments, virtually

Tom Malone refused to believe that watercooler conversations were dead just because so many people were suddenly working from home during the pandemic. He knew that random workplace chatter can help people build trust and form bonds. And as a researcher who studies technology and organizational design, he says, “it seemed obvious to me that there should be ways to support informal interactions” at virtual conferences and in online workspaces.

So Malone, who teaches at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, worked with a graduate student to develop Minglr, open-source software that anyone can download and use to meet with people who indicate they’re free to chat. The interface is like AIM and Zoom rolled into one: the left panel shows who’s free, along with an avatar and relevant information such as title and conversational interests; a middle panel lists a queue of people who want to talk with you now; the right panel shows another list of people who want to talk in the future.

Malone tested Minglr at a virtual conference in June and wrote a paper describing the response. About a third of attendees used the software, and they had two conversations apiece on average. He acknowledges that tools like Minglr and Zoom don’t perfectly replicate the feeling of being around the watercooler or coffee machine. But he doesn’t think impromptu conversations must be lost to the pandemic.

How Minglr looks on a desktop. Courtesy Prof. Thomas Malone


Malone isn’t the only one who thinks this type of spontaneous casual interaction can be saved. As the pandemic turns traditional office culture upside down, workers are finding creative ways to seek such connection. And these changes will likely linger after a coronavirus vaccine makes it safe for many to return to work. With offices already reconfiguring open plans, and the possibility that common spaces like snack bars and conference rooms will be off-limits, the literal watercooler conversation could be an artifact of a bygone era.

If that’s the case, replacing it is important. Experts suggest that at best, a workplace with no interaction between siloed groups—creative with finance, for example—can make people feel more like worker bees. At worst, it can stifle creativity and collaboration. Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, says this type of small talk “is crucial because it keeps the gears of relationships going” and can establish common ground.

Technology has offered a ready solution for some types of ad hoc conversations during the pandemic. Facebook and Instagram Lives, Reddit Live, Discord, Twitch, and Omegle (a program that facilitates video chats with strangers) allow people to drop in to events like a yoga session, a dance party, or an influencer’s “ask me anything” session.

But replicating chance encounters at the office is more difficult over video chat, where meetings are planned ahead and attendance is restricted. And for some who rely heavily on networking and watercooler chat to fuel their days, the last few months have been excruciating.

“I love going to events and meeting people in person,” says Sarah Solomon, who runs a public relations agency on the US West Coast and used to meet people over coffee or find potential clients at events. Once the pandemic made that approach difficult, she turned to LinkedIn but wasn’t satisfied. “Messaging can only take a relationship so far,” she says. “Nothing compares to meeting someone in person.”

Solomon decided to try Assemble Network, which organizes small groups of up to 14 participants to meet on Zoom once a week for a month. It’s not as random as a networking event, but Jill Katz, the founder of Assemble Network, says the fact that participants are all invested in forming connections (she charges $225 a month for four 90-minute sessions) makes it more likely they will do so.

Katz says Assemble Network creates an environment very different from what she observed at networking events before starting her service: clumps of people hanging around awkwardly in a loud, uncomfortable environment, stacks of business cards in hand. “I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, this is a disaster,’” she recalls. “In order to actually network in this environment, you have to physically break into a circle!”

Katz is now in her second year running Assemble Network and has seen interest grow: she’s thinking of doubling her availability (she personally leads each session). Solomon credits the connections she formed there with shifting how she viewed her potential as a small-business owner.

But a person doesn’t necessarily have to pay to try to rekindle the serendipity of networking at a conference. Gretchen McCulloch, a renowned linguist, has tried to re-create that spontaneity with what she’s called a #virtualcoffeebreak.

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Greens pitch economic stimulus package to recreate Australia – 16 News

The Greens will today launch their proposal for an economic stimulus package targeted at engaging the hundreds of thousands of artists and creatives who have lost their jobs during Covid-19, and the thousands more workers who have lost their jobs due to the flow on impact on hospitality and tourism.

The plan comprises three main elements including ‘Creating Australia’s Future’ which would see artists in residence in every school and library across the country, the ‘Billion Stories Fund’ to kick start our local screen industry prioritising Australian stories and children’s content, and ‘Australia Live’ which would inject funding into Australia’s festival, music and live performance sector.

Greens Spokesperson for the Arts Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said:

“The arts and entertainment industry was one of the first to be hit by social distancing restrictions, it has suffered enormously throughout the lockdown and will be one of the last to recover.

“Yet, it has also been an industry so integral to helping Australians get through this crisis. Despite the job losses, social isolation and mental health problems, this anti-arts government has failed to recognise helping the industry to survive helps us all.

“The arts and entertainment industry will be absolutely vital to our economic recovery. Not only are other industries like tourism, hospitality and accommodation all going to benefit from its revival, but the sector is primed for stimulus. The industry can go in early and hard and put money into the pockets of workers who are in great need of an income and are going to spend what they earn. Without action, we stand to lose a generation of artists.

“The Green’s Create Australia plan is jobs rich and a funding commitment of $2.3 billion makes up less than 1% of what the Government has already spent on the Covid-19 response ($320 billion).

“The Morrison Government has a golden opportunity to enhance Australia’s sovereignty and cultural identity. Artists in Residence throughout our schools and libraries will be of enormous educational benefit to students and entire communities.

“Our screen production is world class and with Hollywood all but shut down we should be seizing the opportunity to create more Australian shows and films than ever. The decision by the Federal Government to let broadcasters out of their local content requirements was a kick in the guts to an industry on its knees, the Arts Minister must make amends.

“There can be no denying our arts and entertainment industry has been there for us during times of crisis and even during COVID-19 when many artists don’t even have an income, they’ve still stepped up to keep creating and connecting with community. If we are going to restore our social fabric we need to bring people back together through live performance, when it’s safe to do so, and that is going to take funding support. But it will be worth it as the return on investment from this sector will be enormous and in more ways than one.”


Creating Australia’s Future – Artist in Residence Program

A $300million project that would see an Artist in Residence in every school and library in the country. This would enable young artists in particular, to engage their skills while helping to mentor Australia’s youth and students. This project is focused on job creation, community development and building an enhanced appreciation for creative industries. It could of course be used to create community art projects in local areas, whether that is street art, theatre or music productions and local exhibitions.

 A Billion Stories Fund

A $1billion Australian content fund to kick start Australia’s screen industry (film, TV and documentary). Productions are job rich, from the creatives, script writers, IT, lighting and sound engineers, crews, costumes, trades people, marketing, logistics (including on location travel, hospitality etc). In particular, Australian stories and children’s content would be prioritised, vital for our cultural identity, education and local jobs.

Australia Live

A $1billion grant fund to inject money into Australia’s festival, music and live performance sector which needs cash flow to restart. Investing in and creating incentives for the planning and delivery of events, live music and performance projects for both metropolitan and regional communities. These projects are job rich and the economic kickback is instant in the communities they occur. Local tourism, hospitality and retail also benefit greatly, of course, along with local construction jobs for those projects that require infrastructure. This fund would also be able to fund small-medium infrastructure projects for the construction and upgrade of local community concert, exhibition and studio spaces. Infrastructure that is purpose built for the creative industries, rather than just sport or conference facilities.

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