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Beyond the Watercooler: The Rise of ‘M-Chat’

Who moved your conversation? Be it for chat, tete-a-tete, offloading or banter, the ‘watercooler’ was traditionally positioned in management texts as the go to workplace destination for informal social exchanges. But, in practice is this habit still alive or are practices shifting towards a new era of workplace communication?

The changing conversation

With a rise in healthy workplace initiatives, conversations are arguably becoming less spatially entrapped, occurring distributed across hotspots for talk and activity. For instance, particular workplace corridors or external walkways, that naturally attract higher footfall, become prime zones for ‘walking meetings’.

Think also of the piloting of ‘device free’ days enabling co-workers to navigate between workstations or offices to talk eyeball to eyeball with each other instead of emailing. With table tennis bats in reach, the installation of a workplace table along a busy walkway, is a visible cue to people for a friendly, active breather – and certainly a glaring antithesis to the smoker’s hut. 

Similarly, the gamification of the popular StepJockey Stair Climbing Challenges make the stairs a physical and social focal point not only for heart health, calorie burn and muscle tone but also for conversations, with social-emotional currency being one driver for health. 

Sparking new ideas

Whether on the ascent, descent or on stairwell landings, face to face conversations get sparked, maintained and repaired. Encapsulating the allure of stairway conversation is this wonderful quote ‘What is a staircase, but a corridor improved by conversation?’ (Catherine Gilbert Murdock).

Somewhat removed from the silo of an immobile ‘watercooler’, m-chats are mobile conversations specifically revolving around episodes of healthy workplace activity, be it a burst of stair climbing, corridor walking, table-tennis or so on. Imagine, over the course of a workday, quarter or financial year, cumulatively these m-chats have the potential to set the social thermostat of an organisation to ‘lukewarm’, ‘warm’ or even higher.

Keeping it face to face

Strong adopters of the ‘healthy company’ already know the longer term value of social impact, for the ‘big three’ - health, productivity, and innovation. Yet we are now living in an era where communications occur in multiple overlapping conversations across multiple interfaces within fixed timescales (Cameron & Webster, 2013). Employees read emails while in staff training and a leader may fire off a direct mail on Twitter while in a board meeting.

Significantly, research shows us that the quality of conversation and therefore decision-making is drastically different across each of these interfaces. Amongst these competing alternatives, of course, it is vital to continue to single out ‘face to face’ as one ‘must have’ communication in the collection. Backing this position, Dr Marie Griffiths (Reader in Digital Technologies, The University of Salford), fears us delegating too much of human communication through our devices, she comments: "We should all just look around at each other on our devices, and reflect – is this interaction what we really want for society? Let some face-time actually mean face to face time."

And so, it appears that the reign of the ‘watercooler’ is over. Away from the ‘watercooler’, where will your next m-chats take you and your organisation? 

Guest post by Dr Sarah Norgate, Reader in Applied Developmental Psychology, Applied Psychology Research Programme, The University of Salford 

References: Cameron, A.F., & Webster, J., (2013) Multi-communicating: Juggling Multiple Conversations in the Workplace, Information Systems Research, 24, 2, 352-371.