In a productivity-driven business world, it seems counterintuitive that the long-standing practice of casually chatting at work around the proverbial water cooler can actually improve a business’s bottom line. But in fact, it does.
While it might be tempting to regulate this behavior and design an office that on the surface appears to be focused on productivity—it’s not advisable. Several studies have revealed that environments that support casual conversation, group cohesion, and unplanned meetings are actually more productive than environments where social breaks are discouraged.
But why is this the case? It boils down to the company’s most valuable asset: the human. And humans are social creatures, not robots.
Three Ways to Encourage Water Cooler Chats
- Intentionally design spaces within the office for impromptu meetings.
Integrating touch-down spaces within both open-plan offices and clusters of private offices not only allows employees a place to hold impromptu conversations and meetings—it gives them permission to do so, promoting group cohesion.
The built environment sends cues about corporate culture, regardless of whether that’s intended or not, so ensure that the cues being sent communicate that the employee is valued and respected. By supporting the natural human habit of engaging in casual social interaction, an employee feels supported in their humanity, and not like they’re seen as a machine.
- Intentionally craft the office itself to allow for collaboration with guests.
Whether it’s a private office, a workstation, or an office comprised of benching solutions, built-in space for a visitor to sit with the occupant. In a private office, it can be as easy as providing a guest chair, but it takes a little more planning and intention when designing workstations.
Workstations can be designed with dozens or even hundreds of different sizes and configurations and must be approached on a case-by-case basis. For some configurations, a table can be integrated into a set of two workstations, allowing space for impromptu meetings or a change of posture.
Other workstations must occupy a smaller footprint, but that doesn’t mean that guest seating can’t be incorporated; it just means finding a creative solution. One option is integrating a seat directly into the workstation itself, giving visitors a comfortable and inviting place to sit. Another option is to swap out a traditional drawer pedestal for a mobile pedestal with a cushion top, giving storage flexibility to the occupant and providing a seat when needed.
- Don’t forget the break room.
Even if touchdown space is integrated throughout, and everyone has a visitor’s seat to encourage collaboration, The Break Room is an integral part of the office that is oft forgotten. By making the break room appealing as well as useful, people will feel more inclined to hang out and chat with each other or even have impromptu meetings while microwaving their leftovers.
A thoughtful approach to break room design—providing both enough seating and a variety of options—can increase a sense of group cohesion, telegraphing that it’s not just a place to reheat spaghetti to take back to the desk, but rather a place that supports community and collaboration.
Creating a sense of community and group cohesion has a positive impact on corporate cultures and helps increase productivity and support recruitment and retention. Traditionally this sense of community has centered around the water cooler, but there are many more creative and effective ways to use the built environment to communicate to employees that they aren’t just machines of productivity. For more information on design solutions to increase productivity and group cohesion or to be connected to Interior Elements, click here.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anna Ruth Gatlin, PhD, is an award-winning interior designer and design researcher. Currently an Assistant Professor of Interior Design at Auburn University, she transitioned to full-time academia after a career practicing institutional, commercial, healthcare, and educational design.