Small talk is something many of us miss about going into the office, and for good reason: It helps people feel emotionally connected and boosts collaboration and creativity. Yet not everyone is a fan; some think small talk is inauthentic and a waste of time. To resolve these views, the authors did a 15-day study of the impact that small talk had on 151 workers. They found that though small talk was both uplifting and distracting to employees, the positives outweighed the negatives, and the negatives could be managed. The issue today is that the move to remote work environment is cutting many people off from workplace small talk. However, managers can find ways to integrate it into virtual settings and use new tools to make it more inclusive and productive.
Before Covid-19 and social distancing, small talk was a daily workplace ritual for most of us. We exchanged hellos with colleagues on our way in from the parking lot, chatted about our weekends while waiting for meetings to begin, and swapped stories about our families with our cube mates. Though these encounters probably lasted only minutes, they played a crucial role in making us feel emotionally connected at work.
Small talk is important to us in other ways, 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.” No wonder so many of us are mourning the loss of small talk during the pandemic-driven work-from-home boom.
Yet others are deeply skeptical of small talk. They say it makes them anxious, spreads gossip, wastes time, and is inauthentic and awkward. Some even arrive at meetings exactly at the start time to avoid having to chitchat. This makes small talk a bit of a social paradox and raises the question: Is it ultimately more helpful or more hurtful to employees’ daily lives?
To resolve these views, we surveyed 151 full-time working adults three times a day for 15 consecutive workdays before the pandemic. We asked how much small talk they made at work each day and about their positive emotions (friendliness, pride, and gratitude) and ability to focus. And each night they reported their levels of well-being and prosocial behaviors.
The results revealed that small talk was both uplifting and distracting. 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 organizations consider their optimal post-pandemic remote-work strategy, they’ll need practices to integrate small talk into their work ecosystems. The good news is that the virtual landscape presents a surprising opportunity to enhance the value of small talk. Drawing on our research, we offer managers and employees the following advice:
Encourage new social rituals. Working from home has blurred the lines between people’s jobs and their personal lives, and without routines like daily commutes to divide them, many employees are struggling to shift gears between the two. Small talk can help people disengage from the “home” role and ease into a business mindset. That’s why it’s a good idea to build in time at the start of every meeting for members to greet one another, exchange pleasantries, and ask playful questions. This can also set a positive tone for a meeting.
Other tactics include creating “virtual lounges” in Slack or Teamwork where teams can socialize and holding regular virtual coffees, trivia nights, and happy hours. A recent INSEAD study of more than 500 professionals working remotely across the world showed that the teams that were thriving in the new virtual environment were formally scheduling social gatherings involving quizzes, shared playlists, book recommendations, and movie clubs. Although this mandatory “fun” might have felt a little awkward at first, the teams that didn’t engage in such rituals struggled to adapt to the new normal and reported feeling less connected.
Re-create “casual collisions.” Some organizations have found creative ways to orchestrate informal virtual interactions among employees. There are companies like Spark Collaboration that help employers organize “office video-chat roulettes” that pair up employees who don’t already know one another for real-time social interactions. One Spark client at a global law firm explained, “During the pandemic it was important to us to make sure employees were still making the random connections you might find in a shared office space to help with innovation, building networks, and collaboration. It has been invaluable for relationship building.” Platforms like Airmeet set 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. Managers and employees alike should be careful not to let social conversations take a negative turn. Small talk should be polite, surface level, and focused on neutral topics, like the weather, sports, and TV shows. It should never devolve into gossip — especially about the company or other employees — which breeds incivility, cynicism, and distrust. Managers should also steer teams away from potentially controversial topics like religion, politics, and romantic relationships. Another thing to avoid is excessive self-disclosure: Sharing your deepest anxieties may be okay when you’re meeting a friend for coffee, but it’s not when you’re greeting an acquaintance. If someone asks, “How are you?” it’s ill-mannered to rant about your bad day. Nevertheless, the pandemic has made it commonplace to say things like “Hope you and your family are safe and well” and to acknowledge our feelings of worry and concern.
Emphasize the upside. Highlighting the ways small talk can boost employee happiness as well as the company’s bottom line can win over people who tend to self-isolate. Encourage employees to take charge of their own social health by building in daily social breaks. Although these might seem counterintuitive when you’re under deadline pressure, our research suggests that they are restorative and reduce burnout. New online apps, such as Water Cooler, allow employees to pick a time to chat with coworkers about shared interests, hobbies, or fitness goals. Because the program sets a fixed window for conversations, it can prevent productive work time from being eaten up — something that’s more difficult to manage in face-to-face settings.
Employees can also ask themselves, “Have I been feeling more or less connected today?” “Whom can I reach out to if I need support?” and “What relationships are the most important to me?” Meanwhile, simple strategies like regular brief check-ins can do a lot to alleviate employees’ feelings of loneliness. Though easy, this approach is extremely effective: Research shows that employees feel the greatest sense of belonging at work when their coworkers simply text or email to ask how they’re doing.
As we navigate endless Zoom meetings and new work/life challenges, let’s not underestimate the value of small talk. Just because we might be working remotely doesn’t mean that casual conversations are no longer important. In fact, they may be more important than ever to help us seize daily opportunities to connect across the virtual divide.