A few weeks ago I learned that Crystal, an OCLC colleague I barely knew, loves to play board games, that she and her husband just became empty nesters (like my wife and me), and that she just moved to a new place not far from my house. Both vaccinated, a game night seemed within our grasp and a new friendship had already formed.
People who know me know that I’m a pretty extroverted and gregarious person. I take delight in meeting new people and working on projects elbow-to-elbow. I enjoy a good whiteboard throw-down. I relish the passion of intellectual debate and peer review. And I love all these things even more when they happen in the office with my colleagues.
Since that fateful Friday the 13th in March 2020, my own team at OCLC adopted a practice of meeting online three times a week for 30 minutes just to touch base, crack jokes, put funny comments in the chat, and generally check in on each other’s physical and mental well-being. Work topics only sneak in about 30% of the time. Some of my colleagues have called it a “lifeline” in troubling times.
Prior to the pandemic, our team has worked with folks outside the Dublin HQ and includes one member who works remotely so we’re adept at working virtually. Even so, working in regular proximity to colleagues can power collaboration. But my relatively small team already knows each other quite well. With about 1,200 global colleagues at OCLC, how do we to boost collaboration and infuse remote work with the relationship building we used to rely on serendipity and the shared coffee station to provide?
Several aspects of remote work, from reclaimed commuting time to new work attire, have created more balance for many of us. But a virtual environment makes it challenging to make and foster social connections. Chats about vacation plans (remember those?), new pets, family updates, your latest Netflix binge, and, oh yeah, even work stuff—the water cooler conversations.
So, imagine my delight when my colleagues in OCLC Human Resources launched the (opt-in) OCLC WaterCooler. Each week, a bot called Icebreaker (part of our Microsoft Teams platform) pairs you with a random participating staff member and participants can choose how and when to connect with their match. So far, I’ve had ten matches and only three have been with someone I already knew.
Managing a data science team in OCLC Research, I’m naturally skeptical and critical of the claims of Artificial Intelligence (see our report, Responsible Operations). But the Team’s Icebreaker algorithms don’t suffer from conscious or unconscious bias, so it’s also a great tool for supporting equity, diversity, and inclusion in the workplace by helping us get out of our well-trodden networks. All of my meetups have been with people with varied expertise and experiences, folks from different cultural backgrounds and different OCLC departments. These diverse interactions have not only changed and enriched my perspective, they also make for much more lively and interesting conversations.
I know that my mental and emotional health thrives when I take time to fill my cup, and my work is more innovative and efficient when I connect with people outside of my own team, even for a few minutes each week. Getting out of our ruts is important—the WaterCooler and Icebreaker makes this happen.
The WaterCooler is a godsend. In a year of feeling disconnected and isolated or being myopically focused on my own team’s priorities and work, I’m now meeting with OCLC colleagues in a way that has energized and inspired me.
The other day I chatted with Pradeep. We’d worked in the same building for three years but never had a conversation. We talked about family, moving to Ohio, data science, and the illumination at the tunnel’s end created by the vaccine. I could have seen Pradeep in the OCLC cafeteria or ridden the elevator with him 50 times and not made the same kind of connection. I could have even been in a face-to-face meeting with him and not had the opportunity to break the ice in the way this tool has. Maybe that’s on me, but I’m happy for the new awareness. My modest case of agoraphobia is waning now that I’m vaccinated and I’m looking forward to returning to the office. When I’m back, I will keep using this tool. I can’t wait to chat with my new friends and colleagues online and in person at a real—not virtual—water cooler.