When making a transition from in-office to distributed virtual work settings, there are a number of perceived sacrifices. Some are more or less imagined — vestiges of the “way we’ve always done it” mindset — but some are very real and very legitimate. Ranking high on that list is the element of spontaneous collaboration that comes from random personal interactions and chance encounters at the workplace.

The water cooler best exemplifies this vital dynamic. It represents a well-trafficked central location in the office where team members pass by one another, engage in off-the-cuff conversations, and occasionally stumble upon unexpected breakthroughs.

While CEO at Pixar, Steve Jobs so recognized the importance of unplanned meetings that he proposed altering the layout of the company’s headquarters to facilitate them, suggesting the only bathrooms be placed in a central atrium to increase the frequency of employees from different units running into one another.

While there’s no way to exactly replicate these kinds of happenstance encounters in remote work settings, there are techniques that business leaders can use to channel that same spirit and energy in the virtual realm. To uncover some of them, we chatted with an expert: Pilar Orti, director of the remote work training company Virtual, not Distant.

The Challenges of Distributed Teamwork

Although she fully embraces the broad global shift toward remote work, Pilar doesn’t run away from the fact that moving from a physical setting to a distributed virtual environment involves some potential pitfalls.

“There are many overlooked elements of collaboration that we risk losing when we transition into this fully distributed setup,” she says. “This includes the visibility of the work, and the thinking process behind the work. What I mean by that is things like Post-It notes on people’s desks, walking past the screen and seeing what somebody is working on, or overhearing conversations also.”

That last part is especially easy to overlook. It’s not just the direct conversations we miss out on, but also things we might pick up on in the background. Pilar suggests that “hearing someone talk to someone on the phone, or someone even talking to themselves” can lead to important insights or revelations.

It’s not about spying on people. It’s just the natural outcome of having all your talent together in one physical location, collaborating organically and continually. Colleagues will invariably pick up on things that they can’t online.

When teams are going fully distributed, where should leaders focus in order to avoid having this valuable dynamic go totally amiss?

Supporting Spontaneous Virtual Collaboration in 4 Steps

“The water cooler is a place where people can be spontaneous with each other,” Pilar says. “They can talk without thinking about what the purpose of the conversation is, and that can have value in itself because it reveals aspects of ourselves and how we think about the work that we might not otherwise reveal. It’s also somewhere people just bump into each other, and a place where you can ask for help.”

Sometimes planned meetings become cumbersome in their structure, or rigid in their agendas. Pilar calls the water cooler encounter a “serendipitous moment” where insight and inspiration can emerge specifically because of the random spontaneity.

Based on her guidance, here’s a four-step blueprint for empowering this sense of serendipity on a distributed team.

Step 1: Get your tools and tech in order

It all begins with nailing down the basics. Your team needs to have universally-adopted tools that make it as easy and seamless as possible to spark a conversation quickly, through different channels, and with little planning. Remove all ambiguity about how these platforms will be used across the organization.

“We first need to agree on how we’re using the tools, because in that agreement, it gives us some safety to then be spontaneous,” Pilar explains. “If we’re always wondering how we’re going to be using everything, or whether this is the right way of communicating, then we’re less likely to be spontaneous.”

Step 2: Create a system to signal availability

The water cooler is a social hotspot largely because of the context surrounding it. When someone walks over to pour a glass of water, you can largely presume that they’re taking a break from their work, and are in a casual mindset. Most likely, you’re not going to be bothering or interrupting them by sparking a friendly conversation.

By moving online, we lose the benefit of intuition honed through a lifetime of subtle social cues. In this situation, managers should focus on finding ways to virtually present these cues. And there’s more nuance to that then simply a green/red dichotomy, Pilar believes.

“To create fluidity in this setting, you need a system whereby you signal your availability. And by that I don’t mean whether you’re available for a meeting, but are you available for a short conversation, or are you not available? Maybe for the next two hours, you want to be working on something that requires your full focus. Maybe you are available for a deep conversation at the moment, or maybe you’re only available for superfluous chats because you haven’t slept well, for example.”

To summarize these first two steps, when employees are unsure about whether they should reach out to a coworker — either because they’re not comfortable with the software, or they’re unsure if they’ll be interrupting someone —  they probably won’t. Uncertainty is the chief barrier, and right now in (groan) these uncertain times, leaders need to be more rigorous than ever in combating it.

Step 3: Build upon the innovation that’s already happening

One of the chief struggles in trying to maintain a culture of innovation right now is that employees are going through major life disruption. When people are so consumed with trying to adapt and adjust to new circumstances, it can be difficult to stay focused on taking our work in bold new directions.

But Pilar points out that for many teams, innovation is already happening out of necessity.

“If we’re looking at the current context, I think the first thing is to recognize all the innovation that will have happened organically and capture that,” she advises. “Help people see that they’ve already been doing that. Support all the innovation that will have gone on during the transition by naming it and encouraging people to continue.”

For managers, it’s important to highlight and celebrate the creative and clever things people are doing to make the best of the current situation, finding new ways to help customers and one another. Rally around these wins and use them as a springboard to keep your team thinking big.

Step 4: Lay an infrastructure for asynchronous idea generation

Here’s the upshot of this whole discussion: Once employees become familiar and comfortable with it, the virtual environment actually becomes a vastly superior space for spontaneous collaboration and innovation than a physical office. That’s because it doesn’t require the serendipity of a chance encounter, with two brains auspiciously clicking at once. Enter: asynchronicity.

“Having ideas and innovating are slightly different,” Pilar explains. “We can have spontaneous idea generation. The online world is much better for that than the co-located because you can have asynchronous online spaces where people can post their ideas as they come up.”

She continues: “You can have an idea as you’ve gone from the kitchen to your desk, and instead of waiting and hanging on to it, or instead of writing it down on a private space for you, put it somewhere the team has decided that you will be capturing thoughts. Make sure it’s also a place where people can build on those ideas as they come.”

What this looks like can vary — anything from a simple Google Doc to a more sophisticated and tailored solution — but the key is to have a centrally accessible repository where team members can share their own ideas and iterate upon those contributed by others.

Keep Your Team Together from Afar

When team members can’t physically congregate around a water cooler, managers should create mechanisms for them to congregate virtually. By setting up the right tools, creating a simple system for signaling availability, celebrating innovation, encouraging asynchronous idea generation, you’ll be able to channel many of those crucial serendipitous moments from the office into your virtual workspace.

We thank Pilar for all of her helpful insights. For more guidance on maximizing the performance of your distributed team, we recommend checking out some of the great blog and podcast content over at Virtual, not Distant’s website.

Sococo’s platform is designed to channel the type of enhanced digital collaboration being discussed here, providing an office map that mimics a physical environment. Teammates can easily see what their colleagues are doing (“Hey, Jenna is eating lunch and open to chat, maybe I’ll join her”) and spark those spontaneous conversations that build comradery and spur productivity.

Try out Sococo a try with a free trial and see it in action for yourself.