Why your rapport with coworkers is about much more than small talk

Scientists have proven that small talk with coworkers leads to stronger team cultures and better collaboration.

people meeting while wearing face masks
  • A recent Rutgers study has found that although small talk in the office can be distracting, employees and employers alike gain far more from these seemingly trivial interactions than we lose.
  • Non-work banter can lead to more cohesive culture and higher-quality output.
  • To deliver output with a higher value, you need to view productivity through a different lens, one that has leeway for freeform discourse.

As remote working has become an integral part of the "new normal," there has been plenty of speculation over its effects on people's productivity. Much of this tends to focus on the more tangible aspects, such as a longer working day due to reduced commuting, or the individual home office setup.

But a recent study out of the Department of Human Resource Management at Rutgers has uncovered that there are far more subtle forces at play. Specifically, while small talk in the office can be distracting, employees and employers alike gain far more from these seemingly trivial interactions than we lose. And when we're working from home, that type of banter simply doesn't flow in the same way.

While the effects of office small talk are difficult to quantify, the study expands on its many benefits. Notably, small talk "enhanced employees' daily positive social emotions at work, which translated into heightened organizational citizenship behaviors and greater wellbeing." In turn, this made them more likely to go the extra mile for their colleagues and the company.

women laughing and looking at phone screen

Ketut Subiyanto via Pexels

The study does acknowledge the distraction factor of office chitchat, which will be a more familiar take on the topic for those used to a stricter boss. However, frowning on small talk as a distraction uses a very narrow, somewhat old-school definition of productivity that fails to consider the holistic set of factors governing optimal output.

As Matthew Guay, the founding editor of Capiche, put it, you might be able to build a software stack that allows you to accomplish more. "More on its own, though, isn't enough," he wrote. "A better notes app might help you write more notes. A better to-do list app might get you to list more stuff. A better email app might help you hit inbox zero, and email everyone you've met." But to deliver output with a higher value, you need to view productivity through a different lens, one that has leeway for freeform discourse.

Indeed, the Rutgers study found that, overall, the positive impacts of small talk mitigated any adverse effects of being distracted from work.

In many ways, this isn't new information. Even before the pandemic took hold, experts were extolling the virtues of small talk. It's said to help individuals stand a better chance of being included in projects. Foreign workers excluded by language barriers also report feeling lethargic due to feelings of loneliness and isolation stemming from a lack of engagement with co-workers.

On the other hand, seeing a proper peer-reviewed scientific study confirming what we know about small talk in the workplace is gratifying and especially poignant, given the current realities of remote work.

Not just trivial chat

Of course, every office is likely to have at least one or two curmudgeons who perceive all small talk as meaningless chit chat, and we're all better off letting these people do their thing unfettered. However, when taken across an entire workforce, the positive benefits for the organization start to stack up.

One study by MIT found that office small talk promoted cohesion among employees, even in regimented environments such as call centers.

There's even reason to believe that teams come up with the best ideas when they are shooting the breeze, as opposed to working on ideas. "We have this very rich vocabulary to describe moments of inspiration," noted "Where Good Ideas Come From" author Steven Johnson in his 2010 TED Talk of the same name.

"All of these concepts, as rhetorically florid as they are, share this basic assumption, which is that an idea is a single thing. It's something that happens often in a wonderful, illuminating moment. But, in fact, what I would argue and what you really need to begin with is this idea that an idea is a network."

Showing a slide of William Hogarth's 1755 painting "An Election Entertainment," Johnson noted that "This is the kind of chaotic environment where ideas were likely to come together, where people were likely to have new, interesting, unpredictable collisions, people from different backgrounds." Sounds like something hard to accomplish when we're relegated to individual bubbles. "So if we're trying to build organizations that are more innovative," Johnson concluded, "we have to build spaces that, strangely enough, look a bit more like this."

"An Election Entertainment," William Hogarth

Wikimedia Commons

In 2017, IBM, one of the original pioneers of remote working, recalled workers to the office in a bid to promote better collaboration and improve organizational agility. Ryan Holmes, founder of the social media management tool Hootsuite would no doubt agree with the strategy. He credits a cross-departmental initiative matching employees for coffee dates with having transformed the culture of his company, creating a mindset of open conversation.

All this underscores the role that seemingly trivial conversations can play in building a company culture based around trust and communication. This type of culture is the most critical driver for employee retention among the notoriously transient millennial generation.

However, many of us are now working remotely for the foreseeable future, and there is a lot of talk that the traditional office may be consigned to history.

So what does this mean for small talk and even more importantly, overall employee wellbeing and productivity?

A risky proposition

Pandemic-induced remote working practices mean that employees are working longer hours than ever before, promoting an "always-on" culture. Despite a significant increase in working time, around 30 percent of U.S. employees report being less productive than they were before the onset of the COVID-19 crisis. Neither is this an American phenomenon – a study from Japan shows similar worrying trends.

Of course, there are confounding factors at play here. Many employees are caring for or homeschooling their children alongside their daily work. Some won't have an appropriate home office setup or decent connectivity. The overriding feelings of anxiety brought on by the pandemic and its far-reaching implications will also be affecting many people.

But the sudden change also means that many employees have seen a sudden drop in work-based interactions. The chances are that the majority of leaders are probably unaware of the productivity benefits of small talk, and even those that were aware may not have done much to address the issue. After all, the shift was sudden, and nobody knew how long it would last.

Either way, the loss of office social interactions represents a risk for companies. Employees may become disengaged, and productivity will drop even further. A company culture of trust and transparency can become that much more nebulous with distance.

Redress the balance

Given it seems likely that remote working is here to stay, at least for now, then employers and employees can take some simple steps to help promote social interactions and engagement between remote workers.

First of all, make sure that the channels of communication remain open, even if the communication there is indeed inferior to being in the same room. Most companies operate a chat-based communication system that supports audio calls, video or both – whether it be Slack, Skype, or MS Teams. Create a dedicated channel that's only used for social interactions, and start using it and encouraging others to do so.

woman in video conferencing meeting

Anna Shvets via Pexels

Set up calendar-based opportunities for social interactions such as a one-hour slot at the start or end of the day without any agenda for work-based discussion and allow people to come or go as they please. You could also organize virtual social activity sessions via video meetings, such as lunches, yoga, book groups, or birthday celebrations.

Managers and leaders need to go the extra mile to maintain communications between the company and employees. This may mean setting up a regular newsletter or blog, or conducting employee surveys. Leaders can participate in ask-me-anything sessions to help promote a culture of open dialogue and transparency. Employee recognition schemes using e-cards can help to highlight achievements.

Keep talking small

The suddenness of the shift means that employers and employees alike are having to get used to the new normal very fast. But small gestures can go a long way towards achieving a sense of normalcy, even if employees are locked out of their everyday office environment.

Even those who are considering a more permanent shift to working at home should be mindful that losing out on small talk and trivial interactions holds far more risks than benefits to net productivity.

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