Every morning when employees arrive at work, many gather at the proverbial water cooler rather than heading to their desks and firing up their computer to start the day. While technically at work, this "morning meet-up" has become a ritual. And the meet-ups continue through the day as employees connect around the cooler (which might in fact be a coffee machine, a smoking area or a lunchroom).
The "water cooler" is much more than a device that cools and dispenses water, it is synonymous with gathering and connecting people, usually in an office setting. When a television series is talked about among many people, it is "water cooler" material. The cooler or its proxy is the corporate gathering point where employees catch up on such personal topics as Arab Idol, corporate gossip and plans for after work.
In most managers' eyes, such behaviour is often filed under the heading of wasted time on the company's dime. "You're here to work. If you want to socialise, do it on your own time."
As leaders abhor the waste of time and fear the gossip that grows like a germ, they make a big mistake and try to remove the water cooler gathering. But instead they should try to take advantage of the water cooler and use it as an asset.
After conducting a round of interviews at a client's base, I interviewed the managing director. Listening to what he had to say, I interrupted and, pointing in the direction of the water cooler, said: "That is not what they [implying his employees] are saying". And he responded, "That is my problem, how can I get the right message to them [when I am in here]?" That's easy, go to them - use the water cooler.
I gave the same advice to the regional vice president of a global firm, who was leading his team through a challenging turnaround. He, too, wanted to know how to squelch rumours and drum the "heartbeat" of the firm. After making the "water cooler" a part of his daily routine, the workforce positively changed over the coming quarter.
There is no doubt that employees gather to "blow off steam", catch up and at times gossip. But if you ignore it, you forfeit the opportunity to contribute, shape it and build the informal relationships that aid leadership success.
Before the modern corporate ways, a hunter was be more likely to risk his life to save someone if they were a fellow tribesman and not a complete stranger. It is the same in today's corporate world; people work better together when they know each other on a personal level.
The seeming "down time" employees spend can actually help them do a better job, a lesson employers are learning. When you get to know your team on a personal level, they're more likely to give the extra effort for you.
Additionally, when they get to know each other informally, they're far more likely to give them the benefit of the doubt and to have goodwill when interacting with each other.
The water cooler or any other type of informal gathering is necessary to personalise the workplace so that we can achieve the coveted discretionary effort.
Tommy Weir is an authority on fast-growth and emerging-market leadership, an adviser and the author of The CEO Shift. He is the founder of the Emerging Markets Leadership Center