The Water Cooler

Boys cooling off around a fire hydrant, Chicago, Illinois, 1941. The cool water of the fire hydrant created a setting for social interaction among the boys.

When I transferred to the Forward Looking Work department at Bell Laboratories, I eventually found myself working for a manager who was a fanatic hobby runner. Each day, instead of taking lunch he would take a five-mile run outside, even in inclement weather. Several of his group members, not to mention several of his peer managers, were also runners. There was a culture of cross-organizational communication both in the locker room (a makeshift converted service corridor) and on the running trails that surrounded the site. I quickly learned that becoming a runner was a good way to have communications with the boss that could venture into topics that would be difficult in the office.

...your teams are starting to build identities. Team locality and identity lead to isolation and insularity in team dynamics.

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Organizations need cross-team structures that guard against isolation.

In a large organization, individual teams build their identity around their team or geographic location. In a large building it is difficult to support frequent interaction across teams; most "excuses" to visit another team arise in the forms of meetings and other formalisms that don't support spontaneous communication. Distance, inconvenience, or xenophobia (a "belonging at home" feeling) discourage such informal interactions.

Yet people need to have social contact with each other. And in fact people want to "get out" now and again to see what life is like on the other side of the fence, in other organizations.


Encourage social structures that are unrelated to workplace structures and which will likely cut across the formal partitioning of the organization.

The Water Cooler is the time-honored example of this pattern. One Alliance site in Vienna has a strong coffee culture that revolves around coffee machines on each floor of each wing of the building and one can find small groups congregating there all day, especially mid-morning and mid-afternoon. Another common (but dieing) practice is the smoker's area; in Schlumberger in Houston, members of this group would gather at an outside terrace; in another company, they met secretly in the stairwell.

At the Navision company in Copenhagen, there was a strong food culture: the company served breakfast and lunch. Breakfast in particular was a time of social connection, a relaxed beginning to the day. The company also had well-stocked refrigerators and pantries for snacks during the day, and many of these were enjoyed in a group setting. Food is fun, and is a key element of any culture, but the main contribution to the communication network comes from the social structures built around food.

Corporate clubs, singing groups, running clubs, chess clubs, and a million other social structures can also help serve this purpose. What can you do to encourage such structures? Give them a place to be. Buying a coffee machine or water cooler provides a place for the social dynamics to unfold. Make it special. People won't come by for coffee that is worse than instant coffee they can make in their office. Investing in quality also has the benefit of demonstrating a sense of caring within the organization.

Remember: location, location, location! You can't just plop a water cooler down in a hallway and expect people to congregate around it; you must put it in a place where people can sit or stand comfortably for a time. You may wish to incorporate several of Alexander's patterns [BibRef-Alexander1977] as you lay it out. The research department in AT&T where both authors worked for a time had a room with comfortable furniture and a pleasant ambiance. As an added draw, it had a small library. On the other hand, one facility had a water cooler stuffed in a back storeroom of a lab with restricted access — it was no more than a place to get (or perhaps just store) cold water.

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This pattern not only gives people a break during the day, but it contributes to fundamental human needs and desires that lie in the deep foundations of any human culture. And it will contribute strongly to inter-team communication: most professional communication takes place outside formal channels [BibRef-GrinterHerbsleb2000].

One potential danger in this pattern is "cliquishness,'' a form of schismogenesis (see TheOpenClosedPrincipleOfTeams). If the group is in any way exclusive, some people will feel left out; the locker room example is one such example. A runners' club may literally leave non-members (and even novice members) behind. Coffee clubs might be uncomfortable for those who do not drink coffee. Problems of complementary schismogenesis can be solved by having a bounty of such cross-cutting organizations, but that can also lead to symmetrical schismogenesis. A better solution, where feasible, is to broaden the base of the organization (e.g. the coffee corner can also offer tea and juice). But a healthy environment should be able to sustain even highly specialized groups. In all cases: build on the local culture and its mores.

This pattern rounds out UpsideDownMatrixManagement by going outside the context of the business interests of the enterprise, building on potentially deeper social relationships and normative practices of the culture of the area, town, or other constituency. It complements and rounds out ResponsibilitiesEngage as an independent pattern.

This pattern is similar to HallwayChatter; in fact, both work to improve informal communication. But notice the difference: HallwayChatter moves people close so that they will go to each others' offices or cubicles. That communication, while informal, is planned, and tend to be more of a technical nature. On the other hand, TheWaterCooler enables chance meetings and non-technical conversations. Both are necessary and these patterns are complementary.

Combined with an application of EngageCustomers where you seat your developers in the customer work space, TheWaterCooler can be a powerful way to uncover important requirements details. Beyer and Holtzblatt ([BibRef-BeyerHoltzblatt1998], p. 37) relate:

Many of the important aspects of work are invisible, not because they are hidden, but just because it doesn't occur to anyone to pay attention to them. Intuition doesn't help make these aspects explicit:
An entire project team hangs out in the hallway outside their offices every morning and chats over coffee and donuts. Does anyone on the team know this is a critical project coordination session?
A worker in accounting calls a friend in order processing to gossip and mentions that a rush order is on its way. Does his manager know this informal communication is the only thing keeping the company's rush orders on time?