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Water Cooler Conversations — Remotely?

Water Cooler Conversations -- Remotely?

Good team communication is a challenge anytime, but even more so when working remotely. While that topic can address many things, let’s focus on how to have those comfortable and helpful water cooler conversations with team members who work at a different location.

The Challenge of Water Cooler Conversations

If we were working together in the same office setting, it’s easy to imagine the following situation:

I’ve been working on a project and been stuck on some aspect of it. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to overcome it but can’t seem to make headway. After frustratingly spinning my wheels for some time, I decide to go refill my coffee cup. While in the breakroom and stirring the cream into my coffee, you walk in and say in your typical cheerful way, “How’s it going?” I respond, “I’ve been hitting my head on a wall I just can’t seem to break through.” You ask, and I briefly tell you what it is.

“Oh, I’ve hit that one before, and found that doing such-and-such got me through it.”

That is a practical office-setting illustration of the word picture in Proverbs 27:17 – “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” (NIV)

But those breakroom water cooler conversations are more difficult to have and benefit from when team members work remotely.  How do we have those casual conversations in this working remotely world?

The Solution

Our IT engineering team has a rule we took from a friend[1] that’s simply called ‘The 5/15 Rule’. If you’re facing a challenge, you need to try to solve it yourself for at least five minutes. But if you go past fifteen minutes, stop spinning your wheels and ask a team member or supervisor.

It’s not always comfortable asking for help. In fact, in the example above I never asked for help! But you were kind enough to offer me the benefit of your experience, and that is helpful team communication. Really, I should have shot up a flare for help once I passed the fifteen-minute mark.

What systems are in place for your team to send up a flare for help? Especially in this season when more of us are working remotely? Our team uses and recommends a private and secure IM (Instant Message) server through which we can IM anyone on our team. The solution we use is called OpenFire Server[2], and it’s a free solution that works well. Perhaps you use Microsoft Teams and its Chat functionality. That is also private and secure.

Leadership is wise to regularly encourage team members that it’s okay to not know everything, and that team members don’t have to solve every challenge on their own. Encourage your team to send up flares for help when they need it. The internal IM platform—in our case, OpenFire—is a good way to do that.

The Challenge – Amplified!

The challenge is even greater between staff and those in leadership! A natural unintentional barrier exists between staff and leadership that is often difficult to overcome. In fact, it is only overcome by focused time and effort.

Dr. Ted Engstrom, former president of World Vision International and author of more than fifty management books, liked to do what he (and others) called MBWA, Management By Walking Around. The idea was that throughout the week he would periodically walk through their offices and just say hi and visit. He would ask about family members and issues he was aware of, and follow up on prayer requests.

Leaders, who can’t easily do MBWA in this remote work environment, can log in to the ministry’s IM system and show their status as available. Throughout the week just throw a quick greeting to various members of the team! Follow up on a family situation or prayer request they shared. The IM system can become your breakroom or water cooler meeting place while working remotely.

A Quick IM Platform Caution

Many organizations have let team members choose any IM platform they’d like. It’s important to note that Facebook Messenger, Google Hangouts, and other similar IM systems are neither private nor secure. Like any corporate communication platform, it is wise to avoid any sensitive exchanges (about HR issues, sensitive organizational issues, and so on) over those types of public platforms. OpenFire Server can be setup on one of your organization’s servers, and can be set to be encrypted; thus private and secure. It can be accessed on just about any device (we haven’t found one yet that cannot access it over the internet), and the communications between those devices (tablets, smartphones, and so on) are safe. It can also be setup to keep a limited log of all IMs so they can be reviewed if there’s ever a legal necessity to do so.

Internal IM platforms can be healthy communication channels that can help avoid team frustration, overcome team member roadblocks, facilitate the sense of team among all staff, and can propel your team’s mission forward at a faster pace than it otherwise would be.

[1] Dean Lisenby, VP of Corporate Operations, ACS Technologies

[2] Ignite Realtime, provider of OpenFire Server