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April 7, 2021

Commentary: In Praise of The Water Cooler

There is a culturally iconic place in American business lore, and it is called “The Water Cooler”. In the not-so-distant past, American workers gathered around it to discuss the day’s events, the weekend happenings, the family updates and the latest social buzz. In American business, the water cooler became the cornerstone of a corporate culture.

Since March 2020, we have been deprived of the water cooler. Our lives have profoundly changed in one way or another by the sheer size of this pandemic and the unimaginable scope of its impact. It’s hard to imagine a world where Covid-19 no longer shapes headlines.

Yet, there is hope. A more compliant public coupled with the broad distribution of a vaccine are slowing the pandemic.

For real estate investors, the question today is will workers return to the water cooler? Will the need to gather, share and create around this culture icon be enough to turn-off Zoom and return to the office?

A consensus is emerging nationally that business leaders are anxious for workers to return to the office. In November, Reed Hastings, founder and CEO of Netflix, dismissed the virtual office indicating that he planned to put workers back in the office “within 12 hours of a vaccine.”

Though it might require more than 12 hours, our tenants and leasing agents are indicating that the water coolers will once again be busy before the close of 2021, if not sooner.

So, will the water cooler be back in business? Or will corporate America decide to minimize its footprint in hopes of saving money in the process?

OA Development is buying stock in water coolers. Why? FOMO and Bruce Springsteen.

Imagine this – as an employee given a choice, you decide to work from home to minimize gas expenses and traffic headaches. Soon, the water cooler at work is busy connecting colleagues and building espirit de corps. Where are you? At a distinct disadvantage isolated at home missing out on personal interaction with colleagues, senior managers and mentors. What did you miss?

Bruce Springsteen can answer that with his chart hit “Human Touch.” In it, he speaks of our humanity that yearns for intimacy and strives for closeness.

“You might need somethin’ to hold on to
When all the answers they don’t amount to much
Somebody that you can just talk to
And a little of that human touch”

We all have been seeking answers and wondering what our return to a post-pandemic business world will look like. Our belief is that the next chapter includes a return to the water cooler and “a little of that human touch”.