3 Ways to Create a Virtual Watercooler for Your Remote Team

3 Ways to Create a Virtual Watercooler for Your Remote Team

One of the most frequent concerns we hear from leaders and teams (where remote-work is the foreseeable norm) is the lack of a virtual watercooler. That metaphorical place where people exchange ideas, build connections, and spontaneous innovation thrives.

The informal exchange of ideas is critical for innovation and building relationships.

Fortunately, you can create spaces and interactions that simulate or improve upon the accidental connections that happen when you’re in the same building.

But it does require different ways of thinking and interacting.

As you’re thinking about how to re-create these interactions, it may be helpful to reflect on why watercoolers have become shorthand for these dynamics. The prosaic watercooler wasn’t designed as a place for team members to build relationships and share ideas.

But it works. Well.

Why? One reason is that it feels easy … no pressure … just chatting.

It’s the same reason people tell us the best conversations that happen at conferences happen during the coffee breaks.

So, how can you bring people together to cultivate spontaneous connections and new ideas?

3 Ways to Create that Virtual Watercooler

1. Create a standing “watercooler room.”

One of the most straightforward ways to re-create that gathering space is to build an online version. A Zoom or Teams video meeting that stays open, where people can drop in to say hi, take breaks, and talk about whatever they want.

To get people used to its availability, it may help to have a natural reason people would want to stop by. Perhaps a different daily resource, fun prompt, or shared activity or whiteboard.

Standing “break room” Slack or Teams channels can also play this role. We’ve seen organizations create dedicated spaces for work-related free-form discussions as well as personal topics like exchanging recipes, following sports, and many more.

2. Use quick parallel conversations

We’ve been inspired by teams around the world who come together quickly to solve problems, get creative, riff on ideas, and chart strategic action–in minutes, not days.

The secret to this rapid creativity and strategic problem-solving?

Breakout rooms.

There are so many ways to use the power of breakout rooms for fast parallel thinking.

You can seed the conversation with one meaningful, specific “How can we?” question and have each room address it – or give each room a different question or aspect of the challenge ahead. Or hold a quick standup meeting where people address one current challenge, then design a rapid-breakout session to address solutions for the three most common issues.

Create groups of 4-6 people, create a time limit that feels slightly too short, and get out of the way to let people engage with one another. The secret is to make these conversations relevant and fast. The best result is if one group says, “let’s keep talking” and then does.

3. Get personal with meaningful prompts.

It is possible to build and nurture human relationships remotely. We know because we’ve done it with clients and friends around the world. Whether you’re starting a business meeting with human connection or facilitating a virtual social hour, how can you be intentional and increase everyone’s understanding of one another?

The key is to use meaningful prompts. You might introduce the process with easier topics like hobbies, but over time, move to more meaningful conversations.

One of our favorites is “What are you most proud of?”–either in life, work, or any other aspect of life. This gives everyone quick insight into a person in a way that’s safe and not too vulnerable.

We’ve also worked with teams who have used questions like “What has been your source of strength or inspiration over the past months?” “Can you show us a picture or object associated with your source of strength and inspiration?”

Your Turn

It takes intentional effort to rebuild these informal exchanges, but the rewards are worth it. Your virtual watercooler will help to build connected teams and facilitate better ideas.

We’d love to hear from you. What are the most effective ways you’ve seen remote teams rebuild informal gatherings?

You might also like:

How to Get Better at Remote Small Talk

How to Find the Best Ideas to Make Remote Work Easier

Beyond the Basics: Online Meetings that Don’t Suck Your Soul

How to Get More Creative In Your Remote Team Communication

 

How to Help Your Team Bring You Better Ideas

How to Help Your Team Bring You Better Ideas

You don’t just want ideas—you want GOOD ideas. There’s no time for half-baked solutions to trivial problems. But if you stop listening, they’ll stop sharing, and you’ll miss the good ones.

How you respond to incomplete, off-base, or inelegant ideas makes all the difference in whether or not you’ll get the contributions you do need the next time. Several executives, when they heard about our research on Courageous Cultures and FOSU (fear of speaking up), told us “Oh, that’s not our issue. Our problem is these damn millennials can’t stop speaking up. They complain about everything.”

“And do you listen?” we ask.

“Some of the time, but after a while, you can only take so much.”

Which begs the question: What happens next after you’re tired and they’re ignored? It’s only a matter of time before they stop trying or find someplace else to work that will listen.

It’s worth the time investment to help your team know a good idea when they see one and to learn how to vet it for viability.

This simple tool works wonders.

4 Questions to Help Your Team Vet Their Ideas

In our research, 40% of the participants said they don’t feel confident to share their ideas and 45% say they haven’t been trained to think critically or solve problems.

If you want better ideas, help your employees know what differentiates a good idea by giving them a few criteria. Tell your team you’re looking for interesting, doable, engaging actions.

I-Interesting

Why is this idea interesting? What strategic problem does it solve? How will results improve from this idea (e.g. customer experience, employee retention, efficiency)?

D- Doable

Is this idea something we could actually do? How would we make it happen? What would make it easier or more difficult?

E- Engaging

Who would we need to engage to make this happen? Why should they support it? Where are we most likely to meet resistance?

A-Actions

What are the most important actions needed to try this? How would we start?

See Also: Entrepreneur: Have a Killer Business Idea? Here’s How to Vet It

One question leaders ask to build better ideas

One Question Leaders Ask to Build Better Ideas

To build better ideas, point people toward solutions.

You can’t possibly come up with the solution to every problem. You know you need your team’s input. And even when you’ve got a good idea, it can improve. Your team can help you build better ideas — but it takes confidence and humility to make it happen.

 A 26-Million-Dollar Question

When David served as a city councilman, the mayor and council were considering building a preschool and education center to serve the city’s youngest children. The average cost for this type of center is 26 million dollars. Despite the cost, everyone wanted it built. Without it, young children were bussed several miles to the nearest school.

Although everyone wanted to build the center, debate at one council meeting threatened to derail the project. Every citizen, business owner, or city staff who spoke raised a new objection: why it couldn’t be built over there, why that funding mechanism wouldn’t work, or other uses for the land.

Finally, David remembers Mayor Rice calling a timeout. “We can find one thousand reasons why this won’t work. That’s not the question. The question is, ‘How can we get it done?’”

In a moment, the atmosphere changed. The first person to speak addressed an earlier zoning concern and how they could resolve it. The city manager offered two funding strategies. Then an apartment owner offered to coordinate volunteers to give kids and teachers a place to go after school during construction.

They built the education center, and it continues to serve the community today.

This is a fantastic example of an essential leadership question: “How can we …”

“How can we … ?” helps your team build better ideas because it starts with the confidence that they can succeed. We can do this. But it also includes the humility to invite everyone in. We can do this—but it will take all of us to figure it out.

Creative Combinations

When you ask “How can we?” it’s often useful to follow up with finding the AND between two seemingly disconnected or opposing goals.

In the early days of the iPhone, Karin was leading a 2200 person sales team at Verizon.

The team was on fire, leading the nation in small business sales to overcome declining retail sales due to AT&T’s exclusive rights to sell the iPhone.

Karin and her leadership team made it crystal clear that selling to small business customers was their most important growth strategy.

And it worked. Really well. Clarity on what was most important, and isolating the winning behaviors, led to breakthrough results. The team won the President’s Award for customer growth.

But it also frustrated the data product management team, whose most important strategic objective was converting flip phone users to smartphones.

The hyper-focus on small business sales was distracting the team from the data opportunities.

The data team approached Karin speaking her language. They brought on the fun, by dressing up in wigs (to show that data was also a WIG–wildly important goal) and picketed her sales rally with signs that said, “small business customers need data too.”

Getting Better IdeasThey were asking, “How can we sell business plans and data?

Rather than fear constraints or competing objectives, ask your team “How can we do both?” and see what creative ideas they dream up.

Build Better Ideas with the Problem People

Problem people aren’t problems—they’re the people on your team who often bring up challenges, obstacles, and the long list of reasons something won’t work.

It can feel frustrating as they seem to oppose every idea. You might feel tempted to dismiss their concerns: “Oh they’re always negative.”

But there’s an opportunity to leverage their insights and build better ideas. When they bring up a problem, ask, “How can we do this and overcome the problem you’ve raised?”

They’ll feel heard and turn their analytic abilities to problem-solving (not just problem-finding). People usually find what they’re looking for—so get them looking for solutions and they’re more likely to find them.

Your Turn

Asking “How can we …” leverages your team’s ingenuity, experience, and insight; creates buy-in and ownership; and helps you build better ideas.

Leave us a comment and share Your favorite “How can we?” question or your strategy to build better ideas.

Get Innovative Leadership Ideas You Need

One Huge Leadership Secret to Get Innovative Ideas You Need

Get innovative ideas by asking for what you need.

“They’re just not thinking about the things that make a difference. I keep getting ideas about how to arrange the office when we’ve got big issues to deal with–like how we keep our best customers. How do I get the innovative ideas I need?”

Maya is the CEO of a rapidly growing, midsize engineering firm. I was facilitating a leadership development program for a group of senior executives when she asked her question.

She continued, “I hear you about closing the loop and responding when people share their ideas, but that will take way too much time if we don’t get focused.”

This is a common question when we talk about innovation. How do you get the innovative ideas you need without bogging down the process with trivial, misguided, or ill-conceived ideas?

For example, one client we worked with received hundreds of ideas every week from their front-line people. It was a challenge to process that quantity of ideas. What made it even more difficult is that they had already implemented many of the ideas. Many more had nothing to do with their number one “100%-focus-for-the-next-12 months” strategic priority.

How do you keep yourself from drowning in suggestions, but also get the innovative ideas you need?

The Goal Isn’t Enough

In Maya’s firm, the #1 strategic priority was clear: improve customer retention.

That’s good–great ideas start with focus. If you haven’t already clarified the MIT (Most Important Thing), do that first.

Once everyone is clear about what matters most, the next step is to ask for what you want.

This step frustrates many leaders, but it’s essential if you want to get the innovative ideas you need.

When I asked Maya if she had specifically asked her people to focus on ideas that will improve customer retention she said, “I guess I haven’t, really. I assumed they’d get that. We haven’t talked about anything else but keeping customers for months now.”

What Does Success Look Like?

The most important information you can give your team is: What will a successful idea do?

Take the time to think through your success criteria. For instance, in Maya’s firm will a successful idea:

  • Improve customer retention by 5% across the board?
  • By 10% of the top 25% of customers?
  • Break even in the first year? Second year?
  • How much can we invest?
  • Will it solve a specific problem (eg: Our number one customer complaint is time-to-resolution. We need ideas to solve that by reducing the number of problems on the front end or to fix them faster.)

When you ask for ideas, don’t stop with a generic “We need ideas to keep our customers.”

You’ll get generic ideas.

The secret is specifically to ask for what you need: “Over the next month I’d like to get your ideas on how we can stop these three problems from happening … and how we can streamline our response times and take care of our customers faster.”

Or you might say, “We’re looking for ideas that will improve customer retention by 10% or more and will recoup their cost within 12 months–although six is better.”

Use Success Criteria to Get Innovative Ideas

There are several benefits when you define your success criteria.

First, you’ll get more of what you need. Think about the challenge of blank-page creativity:  if I give you a blank piece of paper and ask you to write a short story, you might struggle. However, if I ask you to write a story about a significant event from your childhood where you learned that a person wasn’t who you thought they were, you could probably get started immediately.

Giving people clarity helps focus their thinking and make it easier for them to produce the innovative ideas you need.

The next benefit is that you filter out many of the trivial, misguided, or ill-conceived ideas. Often, when someone hasn’t thought through their idea, it’s because the person didn’t have all the information they needed.

Finally, thinking through your success criteria makes it easier to evaluate and choose the ideas you will implement.

When It Doesn’t Work

Even when you share the success criteria, you will still have people who share off-topic thoughts or haven’t thought it through.

When this happens, your success criteria make it easy to redirect them and invite them to think more strategically.

For example, when you get an off-topic idea you can’t put time into you might say: “I appreciate you thinking about this. Right now, our number one priority is to improve customer retention by eliminating these problems and streamline our response times. I’d love to get your thoughts on that.”

Or, if you get an on-topic idea that makes little sense: “Thanks for thinking about customer retention with us–I’m curious how you see your idea improving retention by 10% and recouping its costs over the next 6-12 months?”

They may respond with insights you hadn’t seen–great!  Or they may acknowledge that they hadn’t thought it through. Again, you can invite them to continue thinking. Eg: “I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we can improve by 10% while breaking even this year.”

If you have an idea machine in the habit of lobbing “idea grenades” onto your desk, this will help them filter their own thinking and channel their creativity.

Your Turn

When you clarify what successful ideas will do, you will get more of them. We’d love to hear from you: leave us a comment and share your best strategy to get the innovative ideas you need.

how to unlock your teams best ideas

How to Unlock Your Team’s Best Ideas

 

To get your team’s best ideas, ask courageous questions.

Have you ever watched a team member do something insightful, helpful, or creative and asked them why they hadn’t shared it with everyone else? Their answer holds the key to unlocking your team’s best ideas and building a team of micro-innovators, problem-solvers, and customer advocates.

If your silent innovator is like most people, she probably told you “I guess I haven’t shared it because no one ever asked.”

But let’s be real, we work with many leaders who ask for ideas, but don’t get the insights they want.

Overcoming Safe Silence

It takes more than a generic “How can we improve?” to draw out your team’s best ideas.

Your team has questions of their own:

  • Do you really want to hear what I have to say?
  • Is it safe to share a critical view or a perspective different from yours?
  • Are you humble enough to hear feedback?
  • Are you confident and competent enough to do something with what you hear?

Experiences with leaders who didn’t really want input mixed with these concerns lead many people to default to “safe silence.” If you want to free their best ideas from the prison of safety, you need to address these concerns.

One of the best ways to create safety and draw out your team’s best ideas is to ask courageous questions.

Courageous Questions

A courageous question differs from a generic “How can we be better?” question in three ways.

First, a courageous question focuses on a specific activity, behavior, or outcome. For example, rather than ask “How can we improve?” ask “What is the number one frustration of our largest customer? What’s your analysis? What would happen if we solved this? How can we solve it?”

Next, a courageous question creates powerful vulnerability. When you ask any of these sample questions, you are implicitly saying “I know I’m not perfect. I know I can improve.” This is a strong message–if you sincerely mean it.

You send the message that you are growing and want to improve. This, in turn, gives your team permission to grow and be in process themselves. It also makes it safe to share real feedback. When you say “What is the greatest obstacle?” you acknowledge that there is an obstacle and you want to hear about it.

Finally, courageous questions require the asker to listen without defensiveness. This is where well-intentioned leaders often get into trouble. They ask a good question, but they weren’t prepared to hear feedback that made them uncomfortable or besmirched their pet project. Don’t ask questions you don’t want answers for – asking for feedback and ignoring it is worse than not asking at all.

When you ask a courageous question, allow yourself to take in the feedback. Take notes, thank everyone for taking the time and having the confidence to share their perspective.

With many courageous questions, you’ll get conflicting perspectives. That’s okay. It’s healthy. Let the team know how you (or they) will decide going forward.

Courageous Questions Unlock Your Team’s Best Ideas

It will take time. The first time you ask, people will probably be tentative. Remember, they’re wondering if you mean it. The more you respond well, the less guarded they will be.

Here are a few more courageous questions to get you started and unlock your team’s best ideas:

      • What is the problem we have that no one talks about?
      • What do we do that really annoys our customers?
      • What is the greatest obstacle to your productivity?
      • What must I do better as a leader if we are to be successful?
      • What do you think we could do differently next time to help this project (or person) succeed?
      • What recommendations do you have before we start on this conversion?
      • What are you most afraid of with this program / project / process?
      • What is the biggest source of conflict you’re having working with X department? (How might we be contributing to the issue?)
      • What’s sabotaging our success?

Once you’ve tried asking a few questions and having genuine dialogue around the answers, it can also work well to give each team member and index card and ask them to come up with their own courageous questions for the group. Then start each staff meeting or huddle with one or two.

Your Turn

When you use courageous questions and allow people to share feedback without defensiveness, you’ll draw out their truly great ideas. Leave a comment and share: “What is your favorite courageous question to ask your team?”

how to respond when you can't use an idea

How to Respond When You Can’t Use an Idea

When You Can’t Use an Idea, Pivot to Get More Ideas

“I need people to think.” Mattias, the CEO of a mid-sized human service provider, leaned back in his chair and sighed. “They have all kinds of ideas that just don’t work. The market’s changing and it’s like no one gets it. I hear you, I should listen, but what do I do when I can’t use an idea?”

Have you ever been in Mattias’s shoes? Your team has all kinds of ideas, but they’re ill-informed, off-target, or are just bad (it’s okay–just between us, we know it may have been a bad idea.)

The problem when you can’t use an idea because it’s bad or won’t work is that it’s often the first idea someone has. If you respond poorly to the idea you can’t use, you won’t get the ideas you can use.

This was Mattias’s problem. When people brought him an imperfect idea, he would get frustrated, tell them why it wouldn’t work and shoo them out of his office. They never came back.

Six Ways to Respond When You Can’t Use An Idea

1. Say Thank You

You get more of what you encourage and celebrate, less of what you criticize or ignore. If you want people thinking more deeply, thank them for it (even if it’s not quite as deep as you would have liked.)

Eg: “Thank you for taking the time to think about what would create a better experience for our customer. I really appreciate you putting your thoughts together and thinking deeply about this.”

2. Explain What Happened

Share the process. If you were able to trial their idea, focus-group it, or do anything with it, let them know what happened. What problems did it run into? Were there competing priorities? Did the solution break down or prove impractical during testing? Take a few seconds to respond and close the loop. It will energize the person who shared their idea–even if you couldn’t use it.

3. Clarify Your Focus

When you consistently get ideas that are off target or don’t support strategic priorities, it’s a sure sign that you haven’t communicated those priorities clearly. Clarify the answers to these questions:

  • What matters most right now?
  • What ideas will help most?
  • What will good ideas achieve when you put them to work?

Eg: “Our priority for the next quarter is to achieve 100% on-time delivery. We need ideas about how we speed up our QA process without compromising quality along with suggestions to decrease order assignment times.”

Use 5×5 communication when it’s important – share key messages five times, five different ways.

4. Ask How It Works

If you’ve shared the focus, checked for understanding, and someone brings you an idea that seems way off target, resist the urge to chastise them. Instead, use it as an opportunity for a micro-coaching session. Ask them how their idea will help achieve the goal. Taking a moment to be curious can help uncover great ideas or help a team member understand what a great idea looks like.

Eg: “Thanks for thinking about this with us. Can you walk me through how your idea would help us achieve 100% on-time delivery?”

You’ll get different answers to this question. Some will say, “Oh, I hadn’t really thought it through.” In which case you can reply “I’d love to get your thoughts one you’ve had a chance to think it through.”

At other times, they might surprise you with a linkage or explanation that you didn’t see.

5. Share Information

When you can’t use an idea, the problem might be that the person doesn’t have enough information to make a good suggestion. What information can you add that will help them think more deeply about the issue?

Do they need budget data or to better understand how their work fits into the bigger picture? Maybe they need comparative data from other departments or process.

Give them the information they need to think more strategically.

6. Invite More Ideas

Once you’ve clarified the focus and given them more information, invite them to keep thinking and to share what they come up with.

Eg: “Thanks for thinking about this with us. We tried a similar idea last year and ran into a problem – the QA team wasn’t learning about projects with enough lead time. If you have thoughts about a way to implement your suggestion and solve the lead time issue, I’d love to hear what you come up with.”

Your Turn

When you get an idea you can’t use, it’s an opportunity to help people think more deeply and to get even better thoughts. Leave a comment and share your best suggestion for how to respond when you get an idea you can’t use.


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