What’s next for remote workers? A virtual ‘watercooler’

For all of the successes of the pandemic-forced shift to remote work, replicating the casual interactions that happen naturally in the office — the impromptu team lunch, informal hallway chat, or a quick strategy session by the coffee machine — has been a lot harder when working from home.

These seemingly innocuous conversations and connections can benefit both workers and employers, improving wellbeing, sparking innovation and even boosting productivity. A growing number of start-ups such as Donut and Tandem are now looking to connect remote colleagues more effectively with “watercooler” and “virtual office” style apps to address the disconnection many workers feel.

“Before COVID, a big question was, ‘Can people form close relationships in remote work at all?’ or should we design a different type of company that doesn’t depend on close relationships?” said Rajiv Ayyangar, CEO and co-founder of Tandem, a video app that creates a virtual office. “But what the world is seeing now is [that] absolutely you can — you just need the right tools and the right culture.”

Rajiv Ayyangar Tandem

Tandem CEO and co-founder Rajiv Ayyangar

Informal social connections are vital for a sense of community and to connect workers with both team members and the organization as a whole, said Angela Ashenden, a principal analyst at CCS Insight.  

“It’s this connectedness that drives people to contribute more proactively to the business, to be more engaged in collective participation, and to be motivated to go above and beyond in their day-to-day activities,” she said.

These interactions usually happen organically, she said. “However, when all or some of the team [members] are remote, those opportunities for brief, informal chats — not just about work, but to help people get to know each other — are inevitably severely impacted.”

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