Virtual Watercooler Strategy for Remote working

by | Jul 14, 2020

An argument could be made that the workplace is just as much about socialization as it is a place to accomplish projects. Each day consists of social interactions and internal team communications. From discussing the daily tasks for the day on a remote team call to joining colleagues for a lunch break, work is a social place. 

These interactions happen between people with different personalities and ways of thinking. Consequently, these differences can result in times where everyone doesn’t get along. 

Your goal is to make sure these moments of disagreement don’t derail your team’s workflow and result in a toxic workplace. Ultimately, you want conflicts to evolve into discussions that cause your team to trust one another. 

Unfortunately, you have your work cut out for you, as this was a bit easier to do while everyone was in the office. Today, most work is happening online, which means that activities that promote socialization and interaction are also happening on virtual channels. This situation sets the stage for conflicts to occur in digital spaces, especially in places designated as the virtual watercooler. 

So, what exactly is a virtual watercooler, and how can you protect these places from toxicity? 
For some helpful tips, and a wise lesson we learned from an episode of The Office, stay tuned.

What is The Virtual Watercooler?

A virtual watercooler is a place where remote employees gather online to socialize—like the physical watercooler itself. Today, they are represented by virtual tools like company chatrooms, informal video conference meet-ups, and even email chains. 

It can be challenging to get a handle on these communication channels because interactions could be happening between remote employees that you don’t know of. 

This reason is why it is crucial to set boundaries and expectations before things become toxic. 

To drive the point home further, let’s discuss a season three episode of The Office

In the episode, Michael Scott, the regional manager at Dunder-Mifflin, a paper distribution company, makes a disastrous error. After returning from a vacation trip to Jamaica with his then-girlfriend and boss, Jan Levinson, Michael sends a suggestive photo of himself and his colleague to a friend—wrong move number one. However, instead of sending the picture to his friend, he mistakenly adds the whole packaging department to the email. It isn’t long before everyone in the company knows about Michael’s trip and his then-inappropriate relationship with his boss. 

While this scene was played for laughs, things like this do happen. 

Can you think of the last time when you breathed a sigh of relief because you hit “reply” instead of “reply all” on an email? 

Michael’s error, and lack of wisdom in the workplace, may have been avoided with the proper training. Every team needs boundaries when it comes to internal communication, and our goal is to help you establish them for your remote team. 

How You Need to Handle Virtual Water cooler Toxicity 

Having spaces where remote teams can engage in healthy internal communications is key to having groups that work well together. This is what you want to happen. Nevertheless, the fact that everyone isn’t in the same place —and are using virtual tools to create spaces that you may not be aware of— is a problem you have to navigate. So, to help all the Micheal Scotts—and even Jim Halpert’s—maintain healthy virtual connections, here are six tips for managing and handling virtual water cooler toxicity.

Have an HR refresher

It may feel outdated, but it is critical to involve HR in situations like this. Develop training that discusses how remote employees should appropriately use virtual and collaboration tools to communicate with each other. These don’t have to be boring PowerPoint presentations. Have Q&A sessions, develop situational examples, and give your remote teams actionable tips for avoiding toxic workplace situations. Your employees cannot thrive if they don’t know what is expected of them.

Address violators separately

How annoying is it when you receive an email about a situation that you know nothing about that pertains to someone else? It looks lazy and inefficient when you address the group about a problem that occurred between two people. If someone has violated the rules, have a side conversation with these individuals about what happened, outline any consequences, and give them steps on preventing the toxic behavior from happening again.

Have a Mediation Strategy 

Do you know how to handle a situation that has gotten serious? Some cases only require a conversation, while others may need more severe solutions. Make sure that you work with HR to come up with a mediation strategy that allows you to navigate potentially toxic situations that have gone too far. You may even want to acquire legal counsel in cases that may delve into harassment or bullying. Your remote teams deserve to work in a workplace that is safe and healthy. Consequently, you need to have a strategy for bringing parties together and taking appropriate disciplinary action if a significant rule was violated. 

Make Your Expectations Known 

Now, Michael Scott could be a rebellious worker that does what he wants or could be someone who wasn’t trained on office protocols. You can avoid this problem when you make your expectations known during onboarding, as well as before and after any incident. Ensure your team knows how you expect them to behave while using virtual tools, but also reiterate what the rules are if there have been problems. Again, you want to first speak with those involved in the situation first, but it doesn’t hurt to offer general guidance about expectations after the toxic event. Don’t hesitate to remind people of how you expect them to speak and behave when interacting with one another on company chats or video hangouts.

Lead by Example

If gossip, inappropriate language, and unprofessional behavior are not allowed for the workers, that also means the same for you. Consequently, make sure you are leading by example and encouraging healthy interactions. This ideal doesn’t just have to apply to extremely toxic situations. This can be as simple as following your protocols of sending the right messaging through the right channels or allowing your employees to offer feedback and suggestions for workflows. Whatever appropriate communications you are looking for from your remote teams, make sure you are giving the same energy. 

Define What Toxicity Is, and What It Isn’t 

Name-calling is toxic, but politely disagreeing about how something is done is normal. As a result, make sure you define what counts as crossing the line and what is just normal and healthy conflict. We live in a society where people are a lot more sensitive about their opinions and may go to greater lengths to show they disagree with someone else. This setup can easily cause a conversation to turn into something harmful. Therefore, let your team know that it is okay to disagree and provide steps to move forward. You can do this in two ways: 

  • Watch out for employees who don’t feel comfortable sharing their views. Be sure to create an environment where introverted and reserved employees want to share their thoughts and suggestions. This could look like asking these individuals directly about how they feel about something, or telling them that you want them to prepare responses ahead of time.
  • Encourage your employees to call out behavior that keeps everyone from feeling that they can share suggestions and add to the conversation. It isn’t just your job to manage this situation, empower your employees to handle toxic disagreements. 

Turn Toxicity Into Healthy and Constructive Interactions

So, what are your takeaways from this deep dive into preventing toxic workplaces? 

  • Clashes will happen, and that’s normal. 
  • The goal is to make sure all conflict turns into healthy communication that brings about solutions and results. 
  • Managing teams remotely can make it hard to regulate virtual channels. Nevertheless, with some forethought and strategy, you can help your team socialize and collaborate in a way that promotes trust and workplace success. 
  • Your remote employees cannot act on what they don’t know, so always be clear about what your expectations are regarding informal and formal internal communications. 
  • Don’t be a Michael Scott: always check that reply button. 

We hope these tips help you to develop a thriving virtual watercooler. For more tips on creating a stellar workplace collaboration culture, check out our other articles


Working from home will affect your socialization with the team, so a virtual watercooler strategy should be able to help you ease within the remote working environment. Toxic behaviors need to be managed delicately and regularly through effective communication to keep the virtual workplace healthy and happy for the team. 

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