Will Somebody Kill the Water Cooler, Once and For All?

We need to stop focusing on being present at the office and instead hold employees accountable for measurable results.

In a recent survey of remote workers by Morning Consult and The New York Times, 86 percent said they were satisfied working from home and do not want to go back to the office. The other 14 percent likely cited the “water cooler” as the thing they miss most about the office.

Ah, the water cooler, the place where co-workers randomly bump into one another, spur creativity, innovation, and drive outcomes for their companies. Without the water cooler, people would simply not connect effectively—right?

Wrong. In fact, the water cooler represents the exact opposite.

Don’t feel like working? Head to the water cooler. Aren’t clear about what your job is? Saunter over to the water cooler. Don’t have any work to do because you’re all caught up? The water cooler has your back. (Hey, at least you’re in the office, right?)

In fact, the water cooler symbolizes “presenteeism,” when people are physically at a workplace, but they are not working. They might be tired. Or distracted. Or simply have no idea what their manager expects of them. When work is measured by an input (time), the water cooler makes any idle time look like work (whereas in reality it’s actually anything but.)

According to an American Productivity Audit in this Harvard Business Review study, At Work But Out of It, the cost of lost productivity due to presenteeism exceeds $150 billion dollars annually.

We need to stop believing that what happens around the water cooler is a necessary part of work culture and instead focus our collective efforts on getting clear about the actual work and holding people accountable for measurable results, while giving people autonomy to choose the most efficient and effective means to get their work done.

Instead of mindlessly talking to one another at the water cooler or in the break room, what if managers clearly outlined results and you were able to work when, where and how you wanted to get the work done?

The water cooler and what it represents had its day. But that time has passed, despite some employers desperately trying to re-create it with Zoom happy hours. It’s time to let it go and focus on what matters — results. And getting work done efficiently, when and where it is best for you.

Besides, aren’t we all carrying our own reusable water bottles now?