Office Evolution

How the humble water cooler became a driving force in work culture

“I’ve never seen a building that promoted collaboration and creativity as well as this one.”

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Before the 20th century, people had a limited knowledge of germs. In public spaces such as train stations and workplaces — mostly factories — people would drink water from fountains using shared metal cups, which is unsanitary, to say the least.

“Generally, people didn’t have their own water bottles, so it was an expectation that you could get something to drink at your place of work,” said Ashley Dunn, associate principal and director of workplace at Dyer Brown, whose clients include Fortune 500 companies.

The solution

In 1907, a Boston lawyer named Lawrence Luellen invented the “Health Kup,” eventually changing its name to Dixie Cup, to improve public health. Luellen had worked for the American Water Supply Company, which introduced a water vending machine that, together with paper cups, helped reduce the spread of germs and eventually became staples of public spaces and places of work. Eventually, the water cooler (or coffee machine or sparkling water or kombucha dispenser) became the spot in the workplace for chats with colleagues, whether it's preparing for that day’s meeting or a discussion of the crazy development on last night’s TV episode.

“Back in the pre-digital eras, the 1960s to 1980s, the water cooler and where you got your coffee became a meeting place,” Dunn said. “There was no Slack. With people in different departments, they have to find places to come together. The water cooler is probably the only place you’d see particular people.”

The evolution

Although pretty much every office had one, the room with the water cooler was something you didn’t want customers to see, Dunn said. They were destinations in the back of the office—guests would be given a cup of water in meetings, never seeing the actual water coolers themselves. Over the past 20 years, we’ve gotten more comfortable with food and drink in the workplace, and these areas have become more front and center.

Apple cofounder Steve Jobs had a hand in this transition. When he was CEO of Pixar, he sought to make that office a place that “promoted encounters and unplanned collaborations.” That involved creating a centralized atrium that included the cafe so that people from different departments were forced to see each other. The redesign was highly effective, according to John Lasseter, Pixar’s former chief creative officer.

“Steve’s theory worked from day one,” he said. “I’ve never seen a building that promoted collaboration and creativity as well as this one.”

Now, companies hope for a “water cooler moment” that results in a million-dollar idea.

Of course, tech companies proved to be highly influential. Success follows success, and other workplaces were eager to follow their lead with a focus on an office’s environment, amenities, and wellness.

“Companies want to create spaces where people can gather,” Dunn said. “As email became more prevalent, people were speaking less, so businesses wanted to create places to facilitate unintended, happy interactions.”

She said that some of her clients, much like Jobs, strategically place water coolers — and also bathrooms — in places that force people from different departments together. Ben Waber, CEO of Humanyze, who studies behavior and workplace design, said businesses’ perceptions of water cooler chats have changed significantly over the years.

“We like to think of performance as the number of emails I write or the number of reports that I complete, but actually the vast majority of the work that we do is extremely collaborative,” he told Marketplace. “Your work depends on the work of dozens, or maybe hundreds of people, and it’s really that output that we care about. If you spend six hours a day at the water cooler but you make 20 people you work with 10 percent more effective, then that should be your job.”

Now, companies hope for a “water cooler moment” that results in a million-dollar idea.

It's clear the humble water cooler made an unintentionally huge impact on work culture. CSA-Archive/Getty Images

The future

Water coolers have evolved along with our work, but what happens when our work no longer requires offices? Companies are attempting to replicate the casual nature of the water cooler chat through digital means, whether that’s Revelry creating a #watercooler Slack channel or “Zoom roulette,” where the “whole company is invited to join one large meeting” and a “moderator then randomly clusters small groups into virtual video breakout rooms” to “create virtual water cooler experiences.”

Dunn, however, remains a believer in the physical spaces.

“We’re all struggling to know how we’re going to translate things from real life to virtual,” she said. “I don’t think that a water cooler conversation can be made digitally. No one says let’s jump on digital chat and have an impromptu conversation. It’s something companies and designers are going to grapple with for years. It’s hard to come by those unexpected interactions.”

However, when things shake out, it’s clear the humble office water cooler — initially created to protect public health — has made a huge impact on work culture.

Sustainability goals

After things settle down, it's a safe bet that the modern office space will be reborn. Whether that means cleaning or sanitizing, it’s going to be at the forefront of people's minds as they return to work, which means there's potential for it to be as revolutionary as those early Apple offices. The desire for minimizing touched surfaces could lead to any number of innovations, such as contactless water dispensers. Handles are going to be less appealing to everybody, and that’s going to affect the types of water coolers offices have.

Beyond future innovations, water coolers can play a key role in environmental sustainability. Companies are committed to sustainability and reducing contribution to landfills. Without the need for transporting and using small bottles, the company Waterlogic notes that they can offer a "72% carbon footprint reduction." It’ll be interesting to see where it goes and whether single use items make a comeback. What was attractive about water cooler machines is that people didn’t have to throw away cups. In the office of the future, they could be a sign that things are finally getting back to normal.

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