A number of articles have been published in recent months about a perceived major drawback to our mass move to working from home. Most have been written by property management experts, gazing in horror at billions of square metres of empty glass-walled cages, occupied now only by the ghost of air-conditioned drudgery. But some too come from HR and management gurus, the kind of people who said we couldn’t be trusted to work from home because we’d spend all day watching YouTube videos and shopping online.
The articles claim that creativity is being stifled because we no longer have ‘serendipitous corridor chats’, ‘water cooler moments’ and what LinkedIn intriguingly refer to as “random interactions – you know, the kind that happen spontaneously in the bathroom or coffee break area”.
I have no idea what goes on in LinkedIn’s bathrooms. What goes on in ours is embarrassed silence while we, to borrow the Victorians’ phrase, ‘make our toilet’, followed by the random interaction of circling each another like sumo wrestlers because the wash-basins and hand-dryers are too close together.
And I’m not sure what a serendipitous corridor chat is, unless it involves spotting a fiver on the floor. Such chats normally revolve around sport or TV, and I can confidently assert that the question “have you been watching The Crown?” has not once, ever, prompted the reply “yes, and gosh, that’s just given me a great idea for a better spreadsheet.”
Which leaves us with water cooler moments.
Once upon a time offices had water fountains, and water fountain moments involved the whole room falling silent as a potential victim timidly advanced toward the machine, like a supplicant toward a vengeful goddess. On a good day he would receive merely a short spurt of water between the eyes, but if the goddess was angry she would trickle water onto the front of his flies.
The whole office would snicker. This was called Team Bonding.
In time, though, the fountain gave way to the water cooler, an adapted wheelie-bin with an inverted barrel of water inside. Water coolers are found dotted around open-plan offices, for the benefit of staff too lazy to walk to the kitchen (worse than that, my company actually has one in the kitchen, presumably for people undaunted by the extra walk but unlearnèd in the art of turning on a tap). A ‘water cooler moment’ will occur only should you decide not to wait until the cooler is free, which would seem the sensible thing to do, but to approach it while someone else is using it.
The typical water cooler user ignores the tower of tiny plastic cups rammed into one another at the side, despite the fun – serendipity, even – of seeing how many come off when you tug at the bottom one. Instead he has his own large bottle, usually with the name of his gym on it. The advantage of the bottle is that it cuts down on trips – these are busy people, remember, too busy to walk to the kitchen – but the disadvantage is that it is too large to fit into the little grotto that houses the on/off tab and the drip-tray.
So he will lean forward, bum towards you, while some of the water dribbles into his bottle and most onto the floor. It as a process as efficient as trying to fill a petrol tank from twenty feet with a garden hose. Eventually he will give up, not because of you but because his back is starting to hurt. He will stop with his bottle about a quarter full – the volume, interestingly, of one of the plastic cups. He will then turn and acknowledge your presence for the first time with the phrase “any plans for the weekend?”
It might be Wednesday morning. It might even be Monday afternoon. It makes no difference, because he doesn’t actually want to know. You will reply “not much”, he’ll say “same here” and he will walk off. He will make no attempt to mop up the puddle on the floor.
The only creativity this may spark in you is in coming up with inventive ways in which you could make his death look like an accident.
But according to the articles we are doomed to stagnation without these incidents. There will never be flying cars. There will never be robot butlers. Siri will never understand an Irish accent.
To which I can only reply that Edison did not have a water cooler.