Virtual Water Coolers: A Field Experiment on the Role of Virtual Interactions on Organizational Newcomer Performance
42 Pages Posted: 1 Jun 2021 Last revised: 17 Feb 2023
Date Written: February 10, 2023
Designing management practices to better onboard organizational newcomers working remotely is a key priority for firms. We report results from a randomized field experiment conducted at a large global firm that estimates the performance effects of different types of virtual interactions for remote summer interns. Findings indicate that virtual water coolers—or videoconference sessions for small groups of interns and a senior manager—may yield higher performance and career outcomes when they facilitate a demographic match between interns and senior managers or occur at regular intervals during the internship. No other virtual interactions, including an asynchronous Q&A discussion forum, an intern-only water cooler, and an intern group project, enhanced job productivity compared to the control condition. An abductive exploration of mechanisms using surveys, machine learning, and an online laboratory study suggests a tradeoff: while the virtual interactions may offer opportunities for newcomer socialization, they also introduce greater constraints on interns’ time. The relative outperformance of the senior manager virtual water cooler with a demographic match can be explained by their potential to foster improved organizational commitment among treated interns, which may have led to their higher job performance and career outcomes.
Keywords: remote work, virtual water coolers, social interactions, performance, careers, field experiment
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