5 tips to promote ‘water cooler effects’ at informal discussion sessions

The Open Bioinformatics Foundation (OBF) sponsors a Travel Fellowship program aimed at increasing diverse participation at events promoting open source bioinformatics software development and open science in the biological research community. Malvika’s participation at Bioinformatics Open Source Conference 2019 was supported by this fellowship granted to her in January 2019. Find more information here.


The phrase ‘water cooler effect’ is derived from informal gatherings and connections made around water coolers (or vending machines these days!) at the workplace or other formal situations. Such unplanned encounters lead to genuine connections between people resulting in meaningful and productive collaborations. Many research organizations value the importance of such serendipitous interactions, and actively promote them in their work-culture. Conference organizers also recognize its effectiveness and design their program with longer coffee breaks, dedicated slots for informal discussions and designated venues for breakout sessions.

People interacting informally

Image on Unsplash by @productschool

Since 2000, the Bioinformatics Open Source Conference (BOSC) has been bringing together bioinformaticians and computational researchers interested in Open Science, to provide opportunities for them to discuss their projects, exchange ideas, learn about the latest practices in bioinformatics, and collaborate with each other. These meetings are attended by participants with different backgrounds, which provides them with a unique environment to gain multiple perspectives into different technical and social issues within the bioinformatics community. To facilitate informal interactions that promote the water cooler effects, attendees are encouraged to lead or take part in the participant-driven discussion sessions called Birds of a feather (BoF) on topics of interest to them. Since these sessions are very short, session facilitators try to encourage interactions between the participants, while making effective use of the allocated time, welcoming different viewpoints, and finishing the session with some defined outcome or future directions.

discussion session

Image on Unsplash by @zainulyasni6118

I attended my first BoF on the topic of “Unseminar” at the BOSC 2013, where I first met Aidan Budd who was leading this session. Aidan chose the World Cafe method to facilitate this session, where participants could form smaller groups to discuss related topics and switch groups to join different discussions. This informal setting was quite different from the usual speaker-centric format of conferences because it was participant-driven. Everyone immediately felt welcome and included in this session because the emphasis was on learning about the topic at hand together as a group. For a fresh grad student like me, this was a very special experience because I could truly co-exist as a scientist with people of varying levels of experience without feeling like an imposter or someone who didn’t belong there. This discussion didn’t end with the session itself, but catalyzed a much longer discussion after the conference over emails and shared documents, which finally led to a crowdsourced publication on “Ten Simple Rules for Organizing an Unconference”, several long-lasting collaborations among the participants, and Aidan became my mentor and a close friend.

As a community manager, informal discussion sessions are hands-down my favourite way to connect with others, promote collaborations between the existing members of the community and welcome new members while encouraging active participation from them. Since my first encounter with BoFs, I have participated in and led several discussion sessions. In particular, I facilitated one BoF session at BOSC 2017 in Prague, and one session this year in Basel during my participation at BOSC 2019, which was supported by the OBF fellowship, granted to me in December 2018 application round.


Here are my top 5 tips for facilitating BoFs or similar discussion sessions that promote the informal and unplanned aspects of the water cooler effect.

1. Set the ground rules

Start your session by welcoming everyone and highlighting the main points of your organization’s/conference’s Code of Conduct. By choosing an inclusive discussion format (see this post by The Instruction Section, ACRL for ideas) we can provide a platform for our attendees to participate equitably. It is also useful to introduce a few simple tips for effective discussions, for example, by inviting volunteers to take different roles such as notetaker, timekeeper, or chair in different groups to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard and noted (see this role card by Ada Initiative).

2. Get everyone on the same page

State the objective of your sessions clearly so that your participants know what to expect. You shouldn’t assume that participants will know the specific details essential to discuss the topic (we can always ask!), therefore, you can take the first few minutes to briefly introduce the topic and the main terminologies. It’s important to clarify what they will and will not discuss in your session.

3. Manage your time effectively

Be thoughtful and appreciative of people’s time that they invest in your sessions. Conferences can be stressful. Listening to talks, taking down notes, and getting introduced to new topics while coping with the busy schedule, new venues, and jet-lag can be both mentally and physically exhausting. Therefore informal sessions should not demand too much effort from our attendees and should allow them to decompress. To make everyone’s time count, you can share a clear agenda and divide your session into short rounds. When a session is attended by a large number of participants, it’s more effective to split them into smaller groups where they can discuss different aspects of the given topic. We should also encourage people to switch groups to maximize their chances for personal interactions. As facilitators, we should minimize our own contribution but shouldn’t hesitate to bring the focus back to the topic when the discussions derail.

4. Make it truly collaborative

Short sessions are great for brainstorming and generating new ideas. To ensure that these ideas don’t get lost after the session is over, there should be possibilities for your participants to collaboratively explore the topic and take notes. Each group can be provided with pens, sticky notes, flip charts, and/or whiteboards to facilitate note-taking or drawing concept maps. Online documents such as Etherpad, google docs and GitHub are generally used for sharing details of the sessions, offering a place for everyone to exchange their contact information, store their notes, add questions, and refer back to after the session is over. These online tools can be distracting if not balanced well with in-person collaborative activities (see this excellent post on facilitating discussions by University of Waterloo). Each group discussion can be guided by a set of questions or scenarios and the chair of each group can be asked to share the outcome of their discussion with everyone.

5. Communicate your next steps

Even though these events are short, it’s always useful to use a few minutes towards the end of the sessions to bring the entire group together to invite final thoughts and possible directions for the discussed topic and ideas. You can set a few channels of communication that the attendees can use in order to connect with each other and continue the discussion afterward. Since we want to be mindful of the contributions made by our participants, it’s important to let them know where and how the outcome of their discussions will be used, how they can reuse the material, and where they can access them in the future. After the conference, a summary of the session in a collaborative document and further details can be shared with a “Thank You” email.

BOSC 2017

Picture from a BoF I facilitated during BOSC 2017 on ‘Promoting Diversity at Bioinformatics Conferences’

To conclude, informal discussion sessions are useful for collecting ideas, gaining perspectives, and engaging with others over informal conversations on topics of mutual interests. With a little pre-planning, these meetings can turn an idea discussed over coffee or by the water coolers into useful community-driven projects. I hope you find these tips useful and take advantage of this format at the next BOSC or in your community events.

Do let me know on twitter (@malvikasharan) which of your favourite tips are missing in the post.