Virtual Brown Bag lunch: How do virtual teams create the ‘water cooler’ chat?

Case studies

Virtual Brown Bag lunch: How do virtual teams create the ‘water cooler’ chat?

Australian case study (Dell and Deloitte Australia), March 2015

Team bonding is created through formal and informal interactions. When teams work virtually their interactions are dominated by formal meetings, so how do they build in the informal ‘water cooler’ chat? A promising idea is virtual socializing, trialled by both Dell and Deloitte. By Juliet Bourke - Consulting, Partner.

Bonding between team members is generated through formal interactions, such as project team meetings, as well as informal moments, such as corridor bumps. The challenge for team members who are not co-located (virtual teams) is that their interactions are much more heavily weighted towards the formal than the informal.

What’s the alternative? And does it really matter?

Dell and Deloitte Australia have both independently experimented with the idea of virtual socialising – by which a “meal” is shared with virtual team members around a Video Conference meeting time with no agenda. Deloitte spoke with members of both teams to identify the pros and cons of this novel approach to socialising. Unexpectedly, Deloitte found that virtual socialising indirectly supports flexible work practices more broadly, helping team members to think of flexible ways to engage with each other and mainstreaming flexibility.

 

Aim

This case study aimed to understand the relatively new concept of virtual socialising including the practical elements of a VC “lunch” for teams working in different locations. For Dell the aim was to create connectivity across teams located around the world and in different time zones. For Deloitte the aim was to create connectivity across team members located in different offices (Sydney, Melbourne) and different companies (Client, Deloitte).

Method

Interviews were conducted with the lead in Dell who initiated the virtual socialising event with his team and three consultants (ranging from Partner to senior consultant) from Deloitte Australia who participated in a virtual socialising event.

Findings

The Virtual Socialisation events centred around food (lunch or breakfast, depending on the time zone) and using Video Conferencing facilities to enable work participants to talk together in an unstructured way. Interviews with the participants identified four key learnings:

  1. A lack of structure, food and videoconferencing are key to a successful virtual socializing session
  2. Virtual socializing sessions can normalize flexibility and drive employee engagement within a flexible workforce
  3. Virtual socializing sessions encourage the development of innovative ideas
  4. Although beneficial, virtual socializing sessions present some limitations, including scalability.

1. A lack of structure, food and videoconferencing are key to a successful virtual socializing session

There are three essential components to a successful virtual socializing session:

  • No structure. Participants thought that the real beauty of virtual socialising came from its unstructured nature, as ideas flowed freely without having a formal agenda: “I think the idea flows were much better and the conversation around (topic) was much better by not having it on our agenda.” No structure also created an atmosphere of ‘sharing’, where participants felt that they were not limited by a time allocation to discuss a particular subject. This resulted in a notably democratic conversation.
  • Food is essential. “I wouldn’t do this without food!” Participants noted that consuming food in front of one another helped to identify the meeting as a social gathering. One participant also thought consuming food encouraged her brain to think the session was ‘down time’ instead of ‘work time’. Despite some feelings of awkwardness from consuming food in front of one another, overall consuming food added to the feeling of informality and therefore the creation of an atmosphere where sharing ‘out of the box’ ideas was encouraged.
  • Videoconferencing is key. The use of videoconferencing created a more personal connection than teleconferencing, helping people to read each other’s reactions and thus creating a higher level of engagement and sharing.

The experiences of interviewees who participated via videoconference can be contrasted with one of the Deloitte interviewees who participated in the virtual socialising event by phone. In her opinion, she felt as if she wasn’t as engaged in the conversation as those participants using videoconferencing facilities.

Other recommendations from interviewees included restricting the length of the session (e.g. to 1 hour) and specifically encouraging informality to create a safe environment where free thought is encouraged.

2. Virtual socializing sessions can normalize flexibility and drive employee engagement within a flexible workforce

Dispersed teams miss out on the social engagement opportunities often enjoyed by team members who are co-located. Participants suggested that virtual socializing provides an opportunity to fill this gap, by allowing virtual engagement in a style equivalent to ‘water cooler’ discussions or socialising together on a Friday evening after work. This is because the sessions allowed participants to share personal stories to foster a deeper sense of inclusion and understanding of one another: “What I found was a greater sense of inclusion,” “it got us to know each other on a deeper level.” For example, members of the Dell team discovered that they shared mutual interests in volunteerism and community engagement, in line with Dell’s values: “I not only discovered that it was a passion of mine but quite a number of my team members”. Although the use of work technology to run the sessions encouraged participants to think about work, food encouraged a level of informality so as to mimic face-to-face socializing opportunities at work.

3. Virtual socializing sessions encourage the development of innovative ideas

When work was discussed during the virtual “lunch” interviewees reported that the nature of the conversations tended to focus on participants’ interest in work topics, allowing for a much broader conversation than expected in a regular meeting. Participants were quickly able to float innovative ideas, receive feedback from other participants and subsequently develop more opportunities for themselves and the business: “What I found was that there was more openness to perhaps contribute things that weren’t strictly in keeping with where we were headed, so there was a little more out of the box stuff happening.” Tangible ideas were produced; for example, the ideas developed by the Dell team informed the team’s yearly plan: “I was able to incorporate a lot of those ideas into our key focus areas of the year.” The quality of ideas was also noted to be higher than ordinarily expected in a meeting. This was not only attributed to the essential ingredients noted above, but also attributed to the fact that the session structure (or lack of it) facilitated a broader conversation.

4. Although beneficial, virtual socializing sessions present some limitations, such as scalability.

Some interviewees thought that virtual socialising sessions would work best with only a small number of participants. Interviewees diverged on what would be the ideal number; recommendations varied between 5 and 12. It remains to be seen whether the unstructured nature of a virtual socializing session could work with larger groups. It is possible that a large group could result in some participants disengaging from the conversation at hand.

The effectiveness of a virtual socializing session was also thought to be reliant on good technology, to allow participants to focus on the conversation at hand.

Implications

As work becomes more global, virtual teams and teleworking become more usual, the need for organisations to rethink how they engage their employees becomes more important. The experiences of Dell and Deloitte Australia suggest that virtual socialising can provide a fresh way to engage with a geographically dispersed and/or flexible workforce. Virtual socialising therefore serves as an excellent substitute for the informal networking sessions that are enjoyed by centralised teams, within the constrains identified in this case study.

For those considering a virtual socialising session, participants had the following recommendations:

  • Ensure the number of participants is kept low to foster increased intimacy
  • The nature of the session should be appropriately positioned to participants beforehand
  • Participants should be willing and genuinely interested in participating
  • Participants should have adequate time to reflect on experiences from the session as it is a new way of working and requires diligent thinking from participants to ensure its effectiveness.

For further information contact Juliet Bourke or Melanie Goudie at or Karl Solomonson, Executive Director, APJ Talent Acquisition, Dell Inc.

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