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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.
- 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.
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
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.
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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The COVID-19 pandemic is making health disparities in the United States crystal clear. It is a clarion call for health care systems to double their efforts in vulnerable communities.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated America's health disparities, widening the divide between the haves and have nots.
- Studies show disparities in wealth, race, and online access have disproportionately harmed underserved U.S. communities during the pandemic.
- To begin curing this social aliment, health systems like Northwell Health are establishing relationships of trust in these communities so that the post-COVID world looks different than the pre-COVID one.
COVID-19 deepens U.S. health disparities<p>Communities on the pernicious side of America's health disparities have their unique histories, environments, and social structures. They are spread across the United States, but they all have one thing in common.</p><p>"There is one common divide in American communities, and that is poverty," said <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/about/leadership/debbie-salas-lopez" target="_blank">Debbie Salas-Lopez, MD, MPH</a>, senior vice president of community and population health at Northwell Health. "That is the undercurrent that manifests poor health, poor health outcomes, or poor health prognoses for future wellbeing."</p><p>Social determinants have far-reaching effects on health, and poor communities have unfavorable social determinants. To pick one of many examples, <a href="https://www.npr.org/2020/09/27/913612554/a-crisis-within-a-crisis-food-insecurity-and-covid-19" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">food insecurity</a> reduces access to quality food, leading to poor health and communal endemics of chronic medical conditions. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified some of these conditions, such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes, as increasing the risk of developing a severe case of coronavirus.</p><p>The pandemic didn't create poverty or food insecurity, but it exacerbated both, and the results have been catastrophic. A study published this summer in the <em><a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11606-020-05971-3" target="_blank">Journal of General Internal Medicine</a></em> suggested that "social factors such as income inequality may explain why some parts of the USA are hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than others."</p><p>That's not to say better-off families in the U.S. weren't harmed. A <a href="https://voxeu.org/article/poverty-inequality-and-covid-19-us" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper from the Centre for Economic Policy Research</a> noted that families in counties with a higher median income experienced adjustment costs associated with the pandemic—for example, lowering income-earning interactions to align with social distancing policies. However, the paper found that the costs of social distancing were much greater for poorer families, who cannot easily alter their living circumstances, which often include more individuals living in one home and a reliance on mass transit to reach work and grocery stores. They are also disproportionately represented in essential jobs, such as retail, transportation, and health care, where maintaining physical distance can be all but impossible.</p><p>The paper also cited a positive correlation between higher income inequality and higher rates of coronavirus infection. "Our interpretation is that poorer people are less able to protect themselves, which leads them to different choices—they face a steeper trade-off between their health and their economic welfare in the context of the threats posed by COVID-19," the authors wrote.</p><p>"There are so many pandemics that this pandemic has exacerbated," Dr. Salas-Lopez noted.</p><p>One example is the health-wealth gap. The mental stressors of maintaining a low socioeconomic status, especially in the face of extreme affluence, can have a physically degrading impact on health. <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/index.cfm/_api/render/file/?method=inline&fileID=123ECD96-EF81-46F6-983D2AE9A45FA354" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Writing on this gap</a>, Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, notes that socioeconomic stressors can increase blood pressure, reduce insulin response, increase chronic inflammation, and impair the prefrontal cortex and other brain functions through anxiety, depression, and cognitive load. </p><p>"Thus, from the macro level of entire body systems to the micro level of individual chromosomes, poverty finds a way to produce wear and tear," Sapolsky writes. "It is outrageous that if children are born into the wrong family, they will be predisposed toward poor health by the time they start to learn the alphabet."</p>Research on the economic and mental health fallout of COVID-19 is showing two things: That unemployment is hitting <a href="https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/09/24/economic-fallout-from-covid-19-continues-to-hit-lower-income-americans-the-hardest/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">low-income and young Americans</a> most during the pandemic, potentially widening the health-wealth gap further; and that the pandemic not only exacerbates mental health stressors, but is doing so at clinically relevant levels. As <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7413844/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the authors of one review</a> wrote, the pandemic's effects on mental health is itself an international public health priority.
Working to close the health gap<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDc5MDk1MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTYyMzQzMn0.KSFpXH7yHYrfVPtfgcxZqAHHYzCnC2bFxwSrJqBbH4I/img.jpg?width=980" id="b40e2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1b9035370ab7b02a0dc00758e494412b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Northwell Health coronavirus testing center at Greater Springfield Community Church.
Credit: Northwell Health<p>Novel coronavirus may spread and infect indiscriminately, but pre-existing conditions, environmental stressors, and a lack of access to care and resources increase the risk of infection. These social determinants make the pandemic more dangerous, and erode communities' and families' abilities to heal from health crises that pre-date the pandemic.</p><p>How do we eliminate these divides? Dr. Salas-Lopez says the first step is recognition. "We have to open our eyes to see the suffering around us," she said. "Northwell has not shied away from that."</p><p>"We are steadfast in improving health outcomes for our vulnerable and underrepresented communities that have suffered because of the prevalence of chronic disease, a problem that led to the disproportionately higher death rate among African-Americans and Latinos during the COVID-19 pandemic," said Michael Dowling, Northwell's president and CEO. "We are committed to using every tool at our disposal—as a provider of health care, employer, purchaser and investor—to combat disparities and ensure the <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/education-and-resources/community-engagement/center-for-equity-of-care" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">equity of care</a> that everyone deserves." </p><p>With the need recognized, Dr. Salas-Lopez calls for health care systems to travel upstream and be proactive in those hard-hit communities. This requires health care systems to play a strong role, but not a unilateral one. They must build <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/news/insights/faith-based-leaders-are-the-key-to-improving-community-health" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">partnerships with leaders in those communities</a> and utilize those to ensure relationships last beyond the current crisis. </p><p>"We must meet with community leaders and talk to them to get their perspective on what they believe the community needs are and should be for the future. Together, we can co-create a plan to measurably improve [community] health and also to be ready for whatever comes next," she said.</p><p>Northwell has built relationships with local faith-based and community organizations in underserved communities of color. Those partnerships enabled Northwell to test more than 65,000 people across the metro New York region. The health system also offered education on coronavirus and precautions to curb its spread.</p><p>These initiatives began the process of building trust—trust that Northwell has counted on to return to these communities to administer flu vaccines to prepare for what experts fear may be a difficult flu season.</p><p>While Northwell has begun building bridges across the divides of the New York area, much will still need to be done to cure U.S. health care overall. There is hope that the COVID pandemic will awaken us to the deep disparities in the US.</p><p>"COVID has changed our world. We have to seize this opportunity, this pandemic, this crisis to do better," Dr. Salas-Lopez said. "Provide better care. Provide better health. Be better partners. Be better community citizens. And treat each other with respect and dignity.</p><p>"We need to find ways to unify this country because we're all human beings. We're all created equal, and we believe that health is one of those important rights."</p>
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Vegans and vegetarians often have nutrient deficiencies and lower BMI, which can increase the risk of fractures.
- The study found that vegans were 43% more likely to suffer fractures than meat eaters.
- Similar results were observed for vegetarians and fish eaters, though to a lesser extent.
- It's possible to be healthy on a vegan diet, though it takes some strategic planning to compensate for the nutrients that a plant-based diet can't easily provide.
Comparison of fracture cases by diet group
Credit: Tong et al.<p>The results showed that vegans were especially vulnerable to hip fractures, suffering 2.3 times more cases than meat-eaters. Vegetarians and pescatarians were also more likely to suffer hip fractures, though to a lesser extent.</p><p>One explanation may be that non-meat eaters consume less calcium and protein. Calcium helps the body build strong bones, particularly before age 30, after which the body begins to lose bone mineral density (though consuming enough calcium through diet or supplement can <a href="https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-Consumer/" target="_blank">help offset losses</a>). Lower bone mineral density means higher risk of fracture.</p><p>Protein seems to help the body absorb calcium, <a href="https://www.bonejoint.net/blog/did-you-know-that-certain-foods-block-calcium-absorption/#:~:text=Historically%2C%20nutritionists%20have%20warned%20that,may%20increase%20intestinal%20calcium%20absorption." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">when consumed in normal levels</a>. The recent study, along with past research, shows that people who don't eat meat tend to have lower levels of both protein and calcium. When the researchers accounted for non-meat eaters who supplemented their diets with calcium and protein, fracture risk decreased, but still remained significant.</p>
Credit: Pixabay<p>Another explanation is body mass index (BMI). Non-meat eaters tend to have a lower BMI, which is associated with higher fracture risk, particularly hip fractures. In the new study, vegans with a low BMI were especially likely to suffer hip fractures. That might be because having more body mass provides a cushioning effect when people fall.</p><p>Still, the study has some limitations. For one, White European women were overrepresented in the sample. The researchers also didn't collect precise data on the type of calcium or protein supplementation, diet quality or causes of fractures.</p><p>Another complicating factor: Producers of vegan products, such as plant-based milk, are increasingly fortifying foods with nutrients like calcium and protein, so modern vegans are potentially at lower risk of deficiency.</p><p>The researchers wrote that their findings "suggest that bone health in vegans requires further research."</p>