Culture

A brief history of the water cooler

Inventor Luther Haws unknowingly changed the workplace forever.
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It’s 1906. White-collar workers are comparing fashionable canes, the Model K is the hot new car, and somewhere in California, inventor Luther Haws is busy fiddling with an invention that will change the workplace—and gossip—forever.

History lesson. Haws invented the first drinking fountain in 1906 after learning that the communal tin cups shared by school children were a breeding ground for germs. In 1938, he released an upgrade—a self-contained electric water cooler—just in time for the first open-office space to be unveiled in 1939.

The water cooler (or bubbler, for the Bostonians among us) provided workers a place to congregate, regardless of their position at a company. By the 1960s, most offices had water coolers, tucked away from view of visiting clients and customers in a breakroom, according to Inverse.

“The beauty of the water cooler is that it brings together people who otherwise wouldn’t have a reason to talk,” said Bradley Brummel, professor of psychology at the University of Tulsa, in a Korn Ferry blog post.

Virtual water coolers. Decades of research have shown the positive effects of water cooler talk, so it’s no surprise that HR and workplace culture leaders have tried to digitize the experience for the current age of remote work. But it’s not a new concept—the BBC explored how company intranets impeded the spontaneous nature of the water cooler experience more than a decade ago.

While intranets, including social channels and chat rooms, have changed a lot since 2012, people leaders are still refining the virtual water cooler blueprint. Prithwiraj Choudhury, associate professor at Harvard Business School, told the New York Times that remote work has the opportunity to connect employees in different departments with more intentionality. For example, he recommended pairing junior employees with more senior leadership for virtual mentoring.

Haws probably didn’t expect his invention to be used for mentoring—or the perfect meet-cute.—KP

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HR is challenging. HR news doesn’t have to be.

HR Brew keeps you effective in the fast-changing business environment.