Watercoolers are an anti-pattern

Watercoolers are an anti-pattern

In the “post”-Covid1 world, a lot of companies are forcing employees back to the office. The common talking points about why companies need in-office workers include2:

  • collaboration
  • innovation
  • spontaneity

These all are failures of an organization’s management.

A common complaint about remote work is missing the hallway and watercooler meetings. That these impromptu meetings are where the “real work” gets done. What does that mean about the other 15-20 hours of meetings I have every week?

Confession time: as a baby engineering manager I believed this too. I used to schedule my team’s standup to end 15 minutes before lunch. This was an attempt to force impromptu collaboration. And it worked! Those fifteen minutes were far more useful then the preceding stand-up. But it also meant I was a terrible manager. That stand-up wasted people’s time. It could have been an email. It should have been a Slack.

My stand-up was a terrible meeting3. I was the apocryphal CEO, happy with my full office of worker bees, reveling in industry I was responsible for4. But I was also useless. My meeting didn’t improve my team’s work. I wasn’t making my team better.

I had fallen into the watercooler anti-pattern. There was a useful meeting: it just wasn’t mine. I was superfluous.

Managers who want individual contributors back in the office so they can have watercooler meetings are bad at their jobs.

What should managers be doing with their time? Talking to folks in other parts the company. High level strategizing. Three-martini lunches.

But when you get back from lunch, what should you do about the actual management part of your job?

Here are some quotes I found on Wikipedia about managing:

to manage is to forecast and to plan, to organise, to command, to co-ordinate and to control.

  • Henri Fayol

the art of getting things done through people

  • Mary Parker Follett

The core of these quotes is the same, and obvious: managers organize work and workers.

If like past-me, your manager needs their team to self-organize useful meetings, they aren’t doing their job. They are failing their employees and their company.

Watercooler meetings favor the extroverts, the privileged and the nosy. They often miss the subject matter experts and other key stakeholders. They miss intentionality. It’s good to bring in outside perspectives. It’s good to spread work in an area out and reduce your bus factor. It’s good to be organized.

Hoping for a random interaction to solve your company’s problems is like waiting for a million monkeys at million typewriters to write Shakespeare. Sure, it will almost surely happen eventually5, but there are better ways.

So the next time your terrible boss brings up impromptu, in-person collaboration as a good reason to endure the horrors of a commute, tell them to do their damn job.

  1. Despite our collective wishful thinking and the CDC’s abdication of responsibility, the pandemic rolls on. ↩︎

  2. Culture is also usually included, but is a bullshit excuse. A culture can exist and thrive in online or remote only settings. Millions of Internet forums and online games have proven that going back decades. ↩︎

  3. To be fair to past me, most stand-ups are terrible meetings. ↩︎

  4. https://www.bostonglobe.com/2022/07/04/business/its-really-mess-growing-split-between-workers-bosses-returning-office/ ↩︎

  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infinite_monkey_theorem ↩︎