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 / Autumn 2006 / Issue 44(originally published by Booz & Company)


Recent Research

On watercooler talk, learning from failure, happy accidents, measuring communications, and metaphors.

Heard at the Watercooler
John Weeks ([email protected]) and Anne-Laure Fayard ([email protected]), “Photocopiers and Water-coolers: The Affordances of Informal Interaction,” INSEAD working paper, reference 2005/46/OB. Click here.

Photograph by Matthew Septimus
The watercooler holds a special place in corporate life as an informal meeting place where employees can exchange ideas and information. Yet purposeful attempts to create similar places for timely, ad hoc chitchat in the modern organization have proved problematic. That’s the observation of John Weeks, an assistant professor at INSEAD, the international business school based in France, and Anne-Laure Fayard, an assistant professor at Polytechnic University, in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Open-plan offices, for example, were introduced by many companies in the 1980s to encourage spontaneous interaction. Some companies went even further. In 1987, Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS) redesigned its headquarters to resemble a street with shops and meeting rooms in the belief that this would improve internal communication and, thus, business performance. But the experiment failed to change employee behavior. The simple watercooler, it turns out, is hard to emulate.

Hoping to uncover the secrets of the watercooler and similarly successful venues, Professors Weeks and Fayard studied another traditional ad hoc organizational hub: the photocopier room. Using videotapes, they analyzed the social behavior of individuals in the photocopier rooms of three French organizations — a publishing house, a business school, and a public utility. The authors’ observations led them to a new theory.

Two factors, they note, have traditionally been linked to social interaction at work. The first is privacy: A soundproof office affords more privacy than a public waiting room, thus encouraging conversation; similarly, a watercooler in a neutral space where people can talk freely affords more privacy than one just outside the CEO’s office. The second factor is propinquity: the opportunity to socialize. This involves coming into contact with other people but also meeting them in a setting that encourages face-to-face communication. For example, two people who are waiting at a photocopier would be more inclined to chat than two people sharing an elevator or a subway car. There is social pressure to talk while waiting to copy documents that is absent in the other settings.

To these two factors, Professors Weeks and Fayard add a third: “social designation” — the roles and activities that individuals believe appropriate in a given space. In other words, the perception of what an environment offers affects whether it is seen as a safe place to chat.

On the basis of their observations of the photocopier rooms, the researchers argue that all three factors — privacy, propinquity, and social designation — must be present if an organization wants to encourage informal interaction.

SAS’s “street” concept linked shopping, eating, medical and sports facilities, and multipurpose rooms with comfortable furniture for meetings, coffee machines, and shared office supplies. But most interaction still occurred in private offices. The problem, say the authors, was the lack of privacy.

Similarly, Xerox introduced the LX Common at its Wilson Center for Research and Technology, in Webster, N.Y. — a space designed to support informal interaction among groups of people who normally worked independently. The Common was semi-enclosed, providing a degree of privacy; it was also centrally located, and had to be crossed by people moving in and out of the labs, so it offered propinquity. But there was still something wrong. Some groups used the LX Common to hold meetings, as intended, but colleagues who didn’t want to join in or disrupt the meetings started making long detours, walking hundred of yards out of their way.

The problem here was one of social designation, the authors argue: It was unclear to employees what the space was for. The Common became a social business space only when a Xerox lab manager laid down three rules: Traffic through the area was acceptable at any time; anyone was free to join any meeting; and people were free to leave any meeting at any time.

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