On any given day I can be on either side of that coin. Before COVID, when most of us were going to the office, we usually started our day by greeting our co-workers and engaging in some type of small talk. What we talked about was not important but sharing those little details of our lives made us feel connected to our work family. An article I read in HBR “Remote Workers Need Small Talk, too” had some great incite into why this notion of small talk is so important. It helps “putting us at ease and helping us transition to more serious topics like negotiations, job interviews, sales pitches, and performance evaluations. The tidbits we learn about our colleagues — for instance, that they play guitar or love dogs — build rapport and deepen trust. Research even suggests that chance encounters and spontaneous conversations with our coworkers can spark collaboration, improving our creativity, innovation, and performance. Many people say that small talk energizes them and makes them feel “seen.” As one employee of a midsize accounting firm told us, “Your coworkers don’t necessarily need to know every detail of your life, but it certainly helps everyone feel like a real person.”
Small talk can be used a tool in situations where we don’t work together with other people every day either. I have been on a number of non-profit boards and have added a “touching base” agenda item to the beginning of every meeting to encourage “small talk”. It really is a great way to give everyone an opportunity to get to know each other in a non-threatening way. Small talk can have a down- side as well which is where I find it to be a nuisance at times. When small talk turns to subjects that may be polarizing like politics then it can certainly cause more harm than good. It can also be a time waster when some people drone on and one – we all know that person.
The HBR article shares the results of a survey that revealed that small talk was both positive and negative. “On days workers made more small talk than usual, they experienced more positive emotions and were less burned out. They were also more willing to go out of their way to help their colleagues. At the same time, they felt less focused on and less engaged in their work tasks, which limited their ability to assist others. However, we found that one group — people who were adept at reading others and adjusting their conversations in response — were less likely to report feeling disrupted by small talk. We also saw that conversations didn’t have to be intimate or lengthy to deliver benefits. On the whole, it was clear to us that the positives of small talk outweighed the negatives and that those negatives could be managed.”
As remote work continues, we must build small talk into our daily ritual. Here are some tips to think about.
Build in time at the start of every meeting for participants greet one another, exchange pleasantries, and ask fun questions. This can also set a positive tone for a meeting.
Orchestrate informal virtual interactions among employees. There are a number emerging technology solutions like Airmeet that sets up virtual speed networking for employees. One probable upside is that these exchanges, though less spontaneous, are more inclusive — giving everyone the opportunity to connect rather than leaving it to chance.
Stick to the script. Avoid those tough and potentially damaging topics like politics, religion and ensure that small talk never turns into gossip. Stick to topics that are polite, light and Managers and employees alike should be careful not to let social conversations take a negative turn.
Emphasize the upside. Stressing the ways small talk can increase employee morale happiness as well as the company’s profits can win over people who tend to be loners. “Encourage employees to take charge of their own social health by building in daily social breaks.”
As we navigate endless Zoom meetings, we should not underestimate the value of small talk. While at times it may be a nuisance, small talk will continue to be a necessary element of our daily work lives.
Let us know what you think and join in the conversation . . . . . . .