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Water cooler discord

12 April, 2024

How do companies help employees engage with each other in an increasingly virtual working world? This is a topic hot on the minds of Google executives, following backlash from their employees over changes to their internal message board, Memegen.

Memegen, akin to an online water cooler, has been popular with Google employees who have used the platform to chat, share memes, and freely express criticism about issues ranging from their boss to job cuts. According to this New York Times article, last autumn a new area of tension emerged, as colleagues engaged in heated, often angry exchanges over the war in Gaza. As a result, Google has cracked down. One of most notable alterations involves the removal of the virtual thumbs-down feature, which allowed employees to react to messages that they disapproved of, pushing the message further down the page. Google has also removed metrics which indicate the popularity of memes, citing a desire to counteract negativity and foster more positive debate. Some employees have taken issue with this, arguing it negates the competitive and lively spirit which was one of the platform’s strengths. Memegen is short for Meme Generator because as well as displaying memes, it helps employees make or generate them.

While Google insists it is responding to employee feedback and industry norms, users fear it’s stifling free expression and transforming Memegen into a bland corporate platform.

This is a tricky issue. Enabling employees to engage with each other as people is important. Offering innovative spaces to facilitate interaction on non-company related topics can be a useful way to do it, particularly in a hybrid working age. But managing the acute sensitivities that exist around many topics is important too, as is ensuring that comments do not feel like personal attacks or cross the line into abuse.

Providing freedom within a system that has rules, structures, checks and balances is probably the only sensible way through – though that doesn’t make it easy to do.

If your business has an innovative way of engaging employees in the virtual world, and managing the potential fall out, we would love to hear from you.

By Charlotte Pounder

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