Water cooler talk

Water cooler talk

Ever since the first shelter-at-home order, there’s been an endless debate about the future of work. Will we go back to the office? Work from home? Some sort of hybrid mix?

For as heated as this discussion gets, there’s one character who receives universal respect.

The water cooler.

The pro-office crowd lists “water cooler” right away. We need the water cooler. That’s where the magic happens.

The anti-office crowd concedes this point, ensuring the audience knows they’re not anti-water cooler.

Look, I’ve got nothing but respect for the water cooler. I’m one of the biggest water cooler guys out there. But we’re just gonna have to do this virtually…

The standard office water cooler looked like the one above until 2016-17. It stood six feet tall and came with 6,000 cone-shaped Dixie cups. Each of those cups held less than a shot of water. It worked well for coffee mugs, but if you needed to fill up a water bottle, the design was “one-size-fits-none.” You’d put in your water bottle at a 45-degree angle and call it quits at about 1/3 full.

There were two dispensing taps – red for freakishly hot, blue for lukewarm. The only people to lift the red lever were weekend skydivers, Harley Davidson owners, and the possible vampire who’d start each day with a glass of hot water and a plate of Colby jack cheese cubes.

But over the last 4-5 years, with the rise of La Croix and other seltzers, the traditional water cooler was gradually pushed out of the office. People opted for 21st-century options with trendy European-sounding names like “bevi.” I don’t think it’s possible to say “bevi” in anything other than a whisper.

Touch-screen. Sparkling water. I think you could order an Uber from the home screen. These high-tech upgrades pushed the old school water cooler to a dusty basement corner, next to the fax machine and 55 feet of ethernet cables. It’s like a depressing version of the Beauty and the Beast appliances.

But whenever I see a fancy water cooler, I picture a different type of work. Instead of people gathering and talking about last night’s Cubs game, people fill up one at a time and send each other Cubs GIFs over Slack.

Instead of someone saying, “I’m swamped, I’ve gotta go through this whole Excel spreadsheet,” the fancy water cooler mocks the spreadsheet and has 16 different apps to automate the process.

Offices with an old-school water cooler, you could count on leftover pizza and turkey sandwiches in the fridge. With the fancy water cooler, every lunch is either Chipotle or, “It’s like Chipotle but for sushi.” Everything comes in a burrito.

I’m not passing judgment one way or the other. I just think companies who want people to come back into the office full time should look no further than the water cooler. It’s a domino effect; once you swap out the old-school water cooler, next thing you know, Slack has replaced in-person meetings. Zoom defeated the conference room. Cubicles turn into an “open floor plan” turns into, “Wait a second, why don’t I just Slack and Zoom from my house?”

Offices made themselves so comfortable that they drove people away to the comforts of home.

But what am I suggesting as an alternative?

Again, it all goes back to the water cooler. But, this time, I suggest we look at a good Midwestern high school for inspiration.

Especially in August, you’ve got the football team outside doing two-a-days. Same with the cheerleaders holding tryouts. The marching band’s out there in 95-degree heat. Somehow, the tuba player never passes out.

What do you see at all three sites? This guy.

Nothing says hard work’s getting done like an Igloo 5-gallon water cooler. You see it at construction sites, too, or any sporting event. For anything that involves blood, sweat, and tears, chances are this Igloo water cooler is near.

And what happens with the football players, cheerleaders, and the marching band? They become a team. Few things bring people closer than going through a difficult challenge together. It’s true for the Army, the Marines, and don’t you feel closer to the grocery store butcher after going through those COVID years together?

Without the struggle, loyalty plummets. If I’m working from home, and I’ve never met any of my colleagues in person, why wouldn’t I leave if another place offers 10-20% higher pay? But if I’ve gone through the valleys with someone, I don’t want to look that person in the eye at the water cooler and tell them I’m leaving. It’s easier to keep going for another 35 years.

So, am I suggesting companies put their employees in shoulder pads? Move things outside? Have people carry around tubas and French horns? Not necessarily.

But I am suggesting office two-a-days. Not a year-round thing (at least not at first), only suggesting this for the month of August.

Instead of making things more comfortable, pivot the other way. Start by bringing in the Igloo 5-gallon water cooler. Next: take out the wifi. Turn off the A/C. Get rid of Slack.

What to bring back? Spreadsheets. Fax machines. Cubicles. Yep. Bring it all back. Isn’t “90s retro” kind of in right now anyways?

First working session – 8 to 11 am. Next – 1 to 4 pm. From 11 to 1, everyone breaks for a massive spaghetti lunch in the cafeteria. Those two 3-hour blocks are intense, but it’s focused, and you’re in it together with people who were previously 3-inch squares on a Zoom call.

Here’s the thing, full five days a week return to the office upsets people because it feels forced and inflexible. Hybrid is better, but there’s still this feeling of, “I don’t understand why I have to commute two or three days a week… for the rest of my life.”

With August two-a-days, there’s an end in sight. It also allows employees to rekindle a love for the office — an “office romance,” if you will.

September comes. Everyone heads back home. But they can’t stop daydreaming about the office.

I miss talking about Ted Lasso at the water cooler. I miss giving Denise an actual high five, not the stinkin’ ‘high five’ button on Zoom. And that two-hour spaghetti lunch...

Gradually, there’s a reverse mutiny. The team bands together, demanding more office two-a-days. Management obliges, and everyone lines up outside like it’s the morning of a new iPhone release. Doors open, and people rush through like a football team charging down the tunnel.

Upstairs, the boss — a Bill Lumbergh-looking guy — looks down at the action with a sense of pride. Without looking, he takes a cone-shaped Dixie cup, puts it under the old-school water cooler. Pulls one of the taps.

“Thank you, old friend,” he says, patting the cooler on the back. He takes a small sip, which ends up being the entire Dixie cup.

“Yow, that’s hot!”

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy “The Extroverts are Coming” and “Company Announces Zero Day Work Week. Plans to Run on Guilt.”

Shameless plug – My books are available on Long Overdue Books. This is also a great writing community if you’re interested/working on/or have always dreamed of writing a book.

Ran the numbers, and it’s been 119 days since my last Medium Rare. I think that’s the longest streak ever. I blame my 11-month-old son as the best possible distraction. Hopefully, the next post will be up sooner!


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Chris O’Brien

I was born and raised in Midland, Michigan and moved here to Chicago a couple years ago after graduating from Hope College. I live in the city with my beautiful wife Ashley.
A little bit about me – I go to bed early, I enjoy greasy food and would wear sweatpants everyday if I were allowed to. I just signed up for a year-long Divvy membership, but could very well be the slowest bicyclist in Chicago.
I write the Medium Rare blog and will have a new post up every Monday.

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