Since the world went into lockdown, we’ve all searched for ways to communicate with our colleagues while working remotely. With this in mind, we think it’s a great time to share our very own Watercooler Bot, which pairs up teammates at random to have a conversation and keep the company spirit going.
If you want to jump straight in and have a look, you can find the source code for our Watercooler Bot right here. But we’d love it if you stuck around and read a little bit about the evolution of this project. We’ll also share some tips that we’ve picked up about remote working over the last few years, in the hope that it benefits those companies struggling to make their distance social.
We’ve actually been grappling with the problem of distance communication since 2012, when we started Mobile Jazz. Right from the outset, we wanted to build remote working into our culture, because we knew it provided a better work-life balance for many employees.
At first we adopted a hybrid structure, with some team members working from our office in Barcelona and others working remotely, either part or all of the time.
Eventually we closed our Barcelona office in 2018, and today we’re 100% remote, spread across the globe from Brazil to Australia.
Closing the office was an event that affected all of us. Some felt like we were “losing something”, a feeling which many readers will have experienced themselves over the last few months. But at the same time, it was a turning point to a better bonding experience with the team.
We had to invent new ways to keep our spirit going and give us an excuse to talk to each other, get to know each other on a personal level and still have fun together. We’ve developed various effective strategies to bridge this gap.
We have a weekly all-hands meeting to share project updates and company news. This meeting used to happen in our office and remoters would connect via Google Meet. Now it is solely conducted via Meet, and the content has evolved, too; we’ve turned it into a forum to share experiences, with only a small amount of time dedicated to important company developments. We have other tools to manage projects (you can read about those here) so we use the meeting to learn more about one another and have fun.
We back up the weekly meeting with MJ Talks, where one of us discusses a topic of personal interest. These can range from work-related themes, like the latest development frameworks, to our passion for coffee-tasting and photography. Again, this used to be based in the office; we’d order pizza and sodas, and make sure to finish the event with a couple of Mario Kart rounds. But now it’s moved onto Meet, so we can all join while having lunch.
To ensure we all meet up in-person every now and then, we have regular team-wide events specifically designed to socialize and build team spirit. Our Remote Office and Summer Camp excursions have taken us to Thailand, South Africa, the Balearic Islands and loads of other cool places (read a personal account of our 2019 event here).
Finally, if we want to just hang out for a quick chat, we organise a virtual coffee break. One of us will simply put a note on Slack to ask if anyone fancies a coffee and the interested parties will get together, and chat about whatever’s on their minds at the time.
The Missing Piece
However, even with all those bonding exercises in place, we felt we were still missing something from our old office: those random talks next to the watercooler, those coffee breaks on the terrace, which were totally unplanned and meant that even if you didn’t work closely with someone, you would at least have interacted a few minutes every week with them.
Then we read about Buffer and their random pair calls and thought it was a great idea. The concept is simple really: two members of staff are picked at random and invited to get to know one another. For companies like ours, spread all over the world, it’s a work of genius.
So in the spring of 2019 we built our own bot, which would randomly select pairs of teammates to have a brief chat about anything they want; the only rule was that it could not be about work. We started with 10 minute calls once a week as a trial, but people loved it and they soon asked if we could extend the time. We settled on 20-30 minutes, which feels like a better length for a meaningful conversation.
We’ve grown quite a bit since the bot was rolled out, and it’s been invaluable in helping new joiners mesh into our team. Not only that, but we also always learn something new about each other.
Today, we’re sending our water-cooler bot out into the world. We hope it raises the spirits of your team and ensures that you come out of the current crisis knowing more about your team than you did when it began.
If you want to know more about our approach to remote working, take a look at our Company Handbook. It’s had more than 100,000 downloads since it went live and it explains everything about how we run ourselves as a fully remote company.