Water coolers and corridors: the personality and soul of impromptu engagement

By Neal Poole, Director of Marketing, Capita Travel and Events

Let’s start with a quick challenge – what do you define as a meeting?

The word itself evokes a structured, planned and diary reminded coming together that pop culture often mocks for its platitudes and that some could be summarised by an email - but that we arrange for its many merits. We instantly associate this with the old clichéd room with chairs, a screen or two, a conference phone - or maybe even a boutique contemporary space with exposed brick work, lined with industrial electrical conduit and a perfectly pruned plant – and the final ingredient; seats filled with a range of personalities. It’s an image we’re familiar with and possibly missing right now.

But think beyond that. What about all of those off the record, unplanned, impromptu human interactions? I’ve personally witnessed and been privileged to hear many great ideas shared at these spontaneous encounters, whether at the water cooler, in the kitchen making a brew or simply passing a colleague in a corridor. 

Looking back, we were all very quick and, in some cases, excited by the prospect of working from home; no commute, more time to spend walking the dog or being around family. But 6 months on, and after more virtual meetings than I can count. How are we all fairing up? And what have we lost among the gains?

"I miss seeing people"

A phrase I hear so frequently. Technology has certainly had its advantages during the pandemic and in many cases, I am sure it has helped keep many businesses heads above water. But where do we go from here and how do we find the right balance between technology and human connectivity? After all, we’re social mammals and it’s in our DNA to want to connect with one another.

Understandably, we’re all different and all have a range of emotions when it comes to considering the return to physical workspaces, team meetings or sales pitches. So, there isn’t a one size fits all approach here, we must be empathetic to individual needs, emotions, timing and not to mention, safety! 

There will always be a place and time in our lives for virtual/remote working, I have no doubt. But how do we decide? There is great technology emerging that can support the decision-making process and construct a virtual meeting environment, but a computer algorithm surely can’t consider the human element (yet). Always consider the needs of your audience before taking the computers decision as gospel.  

Those young or old enough to remember the film Wall-E might also remember the scores of humans virtually connected to one-another, communicating side by side via one single screen glued to their automatic chair. The comparison is a little crass, but fiction often has a way of amplifying a good point to make us take notice. Are we at risk of taking technology so far that we miss what is important – human interaction?

Absence of the normal

In all the change, we might’ve lost sight of who used to be right in front of us. A colleague you walk past everyday but instinctively sense their absence when there’s an empty chair. They don’t know we notice, but we’re affected by what’s physically around us more than we care to acknowledge. What’s even more thought provoking is that in a remote working environment, we don’t notice their absence at all or even see a smile on their face when something goes well. Or more worryingly, when they aren’t smiling, and might need support.

That being said, what we have learnt over the past 6 months should be considered when finding the right balance. The reductions in travel time, office-based costs and better work/life balance for some are key areas for organisations and their employees. Even before the pandemic closed the doors of offices throughout the world, industry research into the impacts of unnecessary travel, meetings and events shed light on the wellbeing challenges and how there should be a greater consideration of why and how we travel and meet. But the key here is adopting the best of both worlds and the growth of virtual and hybrid solutions is a wonderful addition to the engagement devices.

In summary, virtual/remote working has earned its stripes, but there is still a desire for many of us to connect in person. Not only for mental wellbeing, but equally to support the business we work within. Is that sales pitch, team meeting or customer review going to have the same impact through a computer screen? And how many ideas have we missed out on through the absence of the impromptu in-office gatherings?

One thing is for sure; travel, meetings, events and remote working continue to be a hugely personalised affair and continues to grow in this regard. So, I’d be interested to hear your views on what a good balance looks like. Comment or send me a message.