Cultivating small talk when there's no office

Federal managers should look for ways to create the virtual water cooler environment.

Image: Shutterstock / CloudyStock

"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, 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."

So begins an article by Professors Jessica Methot, Allison Gabriel, Patrick Downes, and Emily Rosado-Solomon in the Daily Alert published by Harvard Business Review.

Yet small talk also has its critics, who accuse it of spreading gossip, being inauthentic and wasting time. Some make a habit of arriving at meetings at the last moment to avoid small talk.

The four professors thus did what professors do, which is to conduct some research. They spoke with 150 fulltime employees three times a day for 15 days about their participation in small talk and the impacts on their sense of well-being, their willingness to help others, and their job focus. They found that those who participated more in small talk increased their sense of well-being and willingness to help others, yet also reduced their job focus.

The focus of the article is on learning to make good use of small talk when people are working remotely, a way of working that seems certain to persist after the pandemic, albeit not to the current degree. The authors’ examples are most intuitive to the virtual environment, but could be used in an in-person one as well.

One suggestion in the article is to 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 work mindset." The article suggests building 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."

Another example I liked is what the authors call "office video-chat roulettes" that pair up employees who don't already know one another for real-time social interactions.

Particularly in a virtual environment, the article suggests creating "virtual lounges" in using group apps such as Slack, "where teams can socialize and holding regular virtual coffees, trivia nights, and happy hours." A recent study of professionals working remotely showed that the teams that were thriving "were formally scheduling social gatherings involving quizzes, shared playlists, book recommendations, and movie clubs.”

A final suggestion, applying both to in-person and virtual environments, is that "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."

Remote working is a new environment that requires some new social behaviors and adaptations. Gradually such new behaviors would arise and spread spontaneously. But in the remote work pressure cooker, it is a good idea for managers to work consciously and proactively to move the office in that direction.

I bring up the topic of advice about encouraging small talk because this is not the sort of activity that many or most federal managers would regard as part of their job descriptions. The federal workplace tends to prioritize formal and formalistic descriptions of manager's role – such as giving out work assignments and receiving status updates. Excellent federal managers, though, should look proactively for more informal ways a manager can improve the workplace.

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