LinkedIn not working for you? Try Slack or Circle as your virtual water-cooler. I don’t know about you but after nearly two years of working from home, I’m gasping for more casual but interesting conversation. And it needs to be honest and open and not full of sales people.

“Water-cooler” is defined by the Collins Dictionary as an accepted term for the informal chats that people have in their office or workplace. Experts agree that these conversations are still important – see 6 benefits for your remote team – but what’s the best way to recreate them online?

I’m finding more of my downtime conversations and even new real life connections happening over in closed groups on platforms like Slack and Circle. When I’m working, but in need of a break, I’ve got some favourite places to hang out online.

Here’s my current top 5:

1. Digital Charities

The team behind this Slack group came together to work on the Make Poverty History campaign over a decade ago. They wanted an online space for people working in and for non-profit organisations to share knowledge and collaborate. Since then, Digital Charities has grown to around 2,000 people, actively discussing anything from covid-19 to UX (user experience) content. They also do monthly meetups. It’s free to join if you work for charities and/ or the third sector.

Apply to join Digital Charities

2. Upfront Global Bond

Upfront has been a lifeline to me since I joined in July. It’s for women and non-binary folk and was set up by designer Lauren Currie because she was frustrated by the lack of women speakers and the dominance of all male panels at conferences. It’s a safe and super-supportive space with monthly events, guest speakers, a book club, a writers club, co-working and more!

Read about Upfront

3. Social Media Geekout

I’m in a LOT of social media groups but this is the only one I check regularly. It’s a Facebook group for anyone using social media professionally, run by consultant and commentator Matt Navarra. The conversation is informative and gossipy. Great for latest news and insider opinions. It’s lively and friendly. There’s also a newsletter.

Join Social Media Geekout

4. Web Monetisation

Ok so this one’s slightly niche but it’s related to the Design Club: Reboot project I’ve been working on for most of 2021. Web Monetisation is a proposed API standard that enables micropayments. It’s an alternative to ad-funded models and is backed by Creative Commons and Mozilla. What’s great about this community is the diversity of members and the passion for new technologies and ideas. There are monthly community calls hosted by different members. Open to anyone with an interest.

Join Web Monetisation community

5. Agencies for Good

Another Slack group for collaboration and knowledge sharing in the digital for good space. This one was set up by a group of agency founders in April 2020, when the UK was in its first Covid-19 lockdown. The aim is to create a space for agencies who want to work with charities and non-profit organisations. There are questions of the week, peer-pairing and plenty of project and job-sharing opportunities.

Join Agencies for Good

Gossip matters

According to an article in The Conversation, smaller businesses in the tech space, working remotely, started setting up their own virtual water coolers years ago. These took the form of online meeting rooms that were left open indefinitely, with anyone having the option to drop in as they felt like it.

The article cites academic researchers who’ve looked at the necessity of gossip for remote workers or seen the benefits of online communities of practice to support informal learning. And it reports health experts who talk about the importance of “liminal spaces” – hard to define areas like the smoking place outside a building, corners with coffee machines or water coolers, lifts, stairwells and corridors.

In these spaces no-one’s in charge, and conversations are more spontaneous and impromptu. Because of this, engagement is easier, spirits are lifted and problems are explored in different ways.

Open to closed

It’s no surprise that the pandemic has seen a boom in new online spaces for this type of casual conversation. The collaboration app Mural has developed an inbuilt virtual water-cooler to gather around with your team. While apps like Donut and Lunchclub offer to randomly match you with like-minded peers.

Let’s face it, there’s only so much you can informally chat about on open social media these days. Sexism and racism are rife, and even the most casual throwaway remark can have trolls descending on you.

Meeting needs

It’s true these closed groups have the risk of creating echo chambers, either driven by algorithmic or personal choices. But they’re attractive because they feel more secure, private and personal. We all need the freedom to express ourselves and feel seen. These online spaces help fulfil the social (esteem) and self-actualisation needs in Maslow’s famous hierarchy.

This Christmas, let’s raise a glass to the virtual water-cooler. Thank God we’ve got some way of making meaningful human contact, even if it’s only through a screen.

What are your favourites?

My digital ethnography of lockdown life

Photo: iStock