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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Astronomers spot an object heading into Earth orbit.
Minimoons<p>Scientists have confirmed just two prior minimoons. One was <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2006_RH120" target="_blank">2006 RH120</a>, which orbited us from September 2006 to June 2007. The other was <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2020_CD3" target="_blank">2020 CD3</a>, which got stuck in the 2015–2016 timeframe, and is believed to gotten away in May 2020.</p><p>2020 SO, the new kid on the block, is expected to arrive in October 2020 and pop out of orbit in May 2021.</p><div id="37962" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f4c0fc8a2cba6536ea4cd960ebed3e6e"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1307729521869611008" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Asteroid 2020 SO may get captured by Earth from Oct 2020 - May 2021. Current nominal trajectory shows shows capture… https://t.co/F5utxRvN6Z</div> — Tony Dunn (@Tony Dunn)<a href="https://twitter.com/tony873004/statuses/1307729521869611008">1600621989.0</a></blockquote></div>
Identifying 2020 SO<p>The first clue 2020 SO isn't your ordinary asteroid is its exceptionally low velocity. It's traveling much more slowly that a typical asteroid — their <a href="https://www.lpi.usra.edu/exploration/training/illustrations/craterMechanics/" target="_blank">average rate of travel</a> <a href="https://www.lpi.usra.edu/exploration/training/illustrations/craterMechanics/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"></a>is 18 kilometers (58,000 feet) per second. Even <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moon_rock" target="_blank">moon rocks</a> sent careening into Earth orbit by impacts on the lunar surface outpace pokey 2020 SO.</p><p>For another thing, 2020 SO has an orbital path very similar to Earth's, lasting about one Earth year. It's also just slightly less circular than our own orbit, from which it's barely tilted off-axis.</p><p>So, what is it? <a href="https://cneos.jpl.nasa.gov/ca/" target="_blank">NASA estimates</a> that the object has dimensions very reminiscent of a discarded Centaur rocket stage from the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surveyor_2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Surveyor 2 mission</a> that landed an unmanned craft on the moon. Back in the day, rocket stages were jettisoned as craft were aimed toward their desired position. This stuff, if released high enough, remains in space. It appears that this Centaur rocket, launched in September 1966, is now making its way back homeward, at least for a little bit.</p><p>When 2020 SO arrives at its closest point in December, the rocket is expected to be about 50,000 kilometers from Earth. Its next closest approach is much further: 220,000 kilometers, in February 2010.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQzMDk3NC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyODg1MTQ1MX0.HGknDwqp0GmeuczKY_AS7vrPG7KMFUc_XO95tNoI2xo/img.jpg?width=980" id="e5cda" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="85eb1f790d8c3ee5b261f7ba13eaa5e1" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Centaur rocket stage" />
Centaur rocket stage
What we may be able to learn<p>Earthly space programs being as young as they are, scientists would love to know what's happened to our rocket during a half century in space.</p><p>While 2020 SO won't get close enough to drop into our atmosphere, its slow progress has scientists hopeful that they'll still get some kind of a decent look at it.</p><p>Spectroscopy may be able to reveal what the rocket's surface is like now — has any of its paint survived, for example? Of course, being out in space, it's likely to have been hit by lots of dust and micrometeorites, so the current state of its surfaces is also of interest. Experts are curious to know how reflective the rocket is at this point, valuable information that can help planners of future long-term missions anticipate how well a craft out in space for extended periods will remain able to reflect sunlight.</p>
Yet 80 percent of respondents want to reduce their risk of dementia.
- A new MDVIP/Ipsos survey found that only 35 percent of Americans know the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.
- Eighty percent of respondents said they want to reduce their risks.
- An estimated 7.1 million Americans over the age of 65 will suffer from Alzheimer's by 2025.
Credit: logika600 / Shutterstock<p>Remaining healthy requires regular screenings. Here again we see a disassociation between risk reduction and proactivity. Seventy-seven percent of respondents don't talk to their doctors about lifestyle habits that support brain health; 51 percent have never been screened for depression; 44 percent have never had a neurological exam; and 32 percent have never been screened for hearing problems. </p><p>Common early warning signs of dementia, <a href="https://news.yahoo.com/americans-worry-alzheimers-disease-survey-140644803.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">according to</a> Dr. Jason Karlawish, co-director of the Penn Memory Center, include repetitive questions and stories, difficulties with complex daily tasks, and trouble with orientation. </p><p>In terms of intervention, <a href="https://bigthink.com/21st-century-spirituality/does-lack-of-exercise-lead-to-dementia" target="_self">exercise</a>, <a href="https://bigthink.com/surprising-science/obesity-dementia" target="_self">diet</a>, building a <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/brain-reserve" target="_self">brain reserve</a>, and challenging your brain (such as learning a new language or musical instrument) are all proven methods for staving off the ravages of Alzheimer's. Oxytocin has also <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/alzheimers-oxytocin" target="_self">showed promise</a> in brain-addled mice, while researchers found positive results for a <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/intermittent-fasting" target="_self">group of intermittent fasters</a> in promoting neurogenesis. </p><p>Epidemiologist Bryan James says that dementia is <a href="https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2013/04/15/176920391/how-exercise-and-other-activities-beat-back-dementia" target="_blank">not an inevitable result</a> of aging. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It's simply not pre-destined for all human beings. Lots of people live into their 90s and even 100s with no symptoms of dementia." </p><p>Professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine, Andrew Budson, <a href="https://news.yahoo.com/americans-worry-alzheimers-disease-survey-140644803.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends</a> aerobic exercise and the Mediterranean diet. As has long been known, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, fish and shellfish, and healthy fasts like nuts and olive oil seem to have brain-boosting properties. </p><p>To learn more, take the <a href="https://www.mdvip.com/brain-health-iq-quiz" target="_blank">Brain Health IQ quiz</a>.</p><p><span></span>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>
The U.S., China, and Russia are in a "vaccine race" that treats a global challenge like a winner-take-all game.
All for one (vaccine)<p>Launched this April, <a href="https://www.who.int/initiatives/act-accelerator" target="_blank">the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator</a> brought together a panoply of governments, scientists, businesses, and global health organizations with the goal of accelerating the development, production, and distribution of an efficacious COVID-19 vaccine. The "vaccines pillar" of this initiative is <a href="https://www.gavi.org/vaccineswork/covax-explained" target="_blank">the COVAX Facility</a>.</p><p>COVAX is coordinated by the WHO, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. The program maintains a diverse portfolio of COVID-10 vaccines, monitoring each to identify promising candidates. It has also partnered with manufacturers to ease investment risks and serves as a purchasing pool for self-financing countries, while offering fundraising efforts to poorer ones.</p><p>"[G]overnments from every continent have chosen to work together, not only to secure vaccines for their own populations, but also to help ensure that vaccines are available to the most vulnerable everywhere," Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, <a href="https://www.gavi.org/news/media-room/boost-global-response-covid-19-economies-worldwide-formally-sign-covax-facility" target="_blank">said in a release</a>. "With the commitments we're announcing today for the COVAX Facility, as well as the historic partnership we are forging with industry, we now stand a far better chance of ending the acute phase of this pandemic once safe, effective vaccines become available."</p><p><a href="https://www.vox.com/21448719/covid-19-vaccine-covax-who-gavi-cepi" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In an interview with Vox</a>, Berkley noted that the ACT Accelerator is the largest global collaboration since the Paris Climate Agreement. He added, "This type of solidarity is critical because otherwise what you're going to end up with is just a constant reintroduction of infections and the inability to go back to normal."</p><p>As of Monday, 64 higher-income countries and 92 low- and middle-income countries—representing nearly two-thirds of the world's population—<a href="https://www.gavi.org/news/media-room/boost-global-response-covid-19-economies-worldwide-formally-sign-covax-facility" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">have signed commitments to COVAX</a>. Thirty-eight more are expected to sign soon.</p><p>COVAX's goal is to have 2 billion doses by the end of 2021. Experts estimate this amount will cover high-risk and vulnerable people, as well as healthcare workers, worldwide. Participating nations must cover those populations before administering vaccines according to national priorities. As part of the agreement, countries agree to support equal access to the vaccine once it becomes available, a move aimed at preventing hoarding and price gouging. </p><p>Currently, CEPI is supporting nine candidate vaccines, of which eight are in clinical trials.</p>
Why has the U.S. backed out?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="7167e0bf1593a7cb29c1a116041116e3"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/LUAsKbH7yeY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>The United States is gambling that its bilateral deals with various pharmaceutical companies will win the "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/coronavirus-vaccine-trump/2020/09/01/b44b42be-e965-11ea-bf44-0d31c85838a5_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">vaccine race</a>." This U.S.-only initiative, named (sigh) <a href="https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2020/06/16/fact-sheet-explaining-operation-warp-speed.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Operation Warp Speed</a>, has already spent <a href="https://www.cnbc.com/2020/08/14/the-us-has-already-invested-billions-on-potential-coronavirus-vaccines-heres-where-the-deals-stand.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">approximately $10 billion</a> and is pushing to deliver 300 million doses by January 2021. Many experts worry this speedy push through the regulatory path could result in <a href="https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/08/here-s-how-us-could-release-covid-19-vaccine-election-and-why-scares-some" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">premature and dangerous approvals</a>.</p><p>China and Russia have likewise bet on their own high-priced ponies. Russia is touting <a href="https://arstechnica.com/science/2020/09/russia-offers-its-untested-covid-19-vaccine-for-free-to-un-officials/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an unvetted vaccine</a> nicknamed (double sigh) "Sputnik V." This vaccine has only concluded <a href="https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanres/article/PIIS2213-2600(20)30402-1/fulltext" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">phase 1 and 2 trials</a> with a small number of participants, yet Russia claims to have already received international requests. Meanwhile, China has administered <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-china-vaccines-foc/in-coronavirus-vaccine-race-china-inoculates-thousands-before-trials-are-completed-idUSKBN26705Q" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">tens of thousands of doses of a vaccine</a> before completing phase 3 clinical trials. </p><p>An additional barrier to the United States' participation: COVAX is a WHO-led initiative. Earlier this year, <a href="https://www.npr.org/2020/05/29/865685798/president-trump-announces-that-u-s-will-leave-who" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">President Donald Trump admonished the WHO as a corrupt organization</a> and claimed it assisted China in covering up the coronavirus outbreak and its severity. Though he presented no evidence for the accusation, Trump has used it as the basis for <a href="https://www.statnews.com/2020/09/21/64-high-income-nations-join-effort-to-expand-global-access-to-covid-19-vaccines-but-u-s-and-china-do-not/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">his threat to cut ties with</a>, and funding for, the agency.</p><p>"The United States will continue to engage our international partners to ensure we defeat this virus, but we will not be constrained by multilateral organizations influenced by the corrupt World Health Organization and China," said Judd Deere, a spokesman for the White House, said <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-usa-who/white-house-slams-who-over-criticism-of-push-for-covid-19-vaccine-idUSKBN25S62T" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in a statement</a>.</p><p>He added, "This president will spare no expense to ensure that any new vaccine maintains our own FDA's gold standard for safety and efficacy, is thoroughly tested, and saves lives."</p><p>By shirking COVAX, these countries hope to gain peerless access to a vaccine. Each could secure large numbers of doses for its citizens while also reaping the political boons to follow. In the United States, President Trump has pinned his re-election bid on a timely vaccine, while Chinese officials seem posed to use a vaccine <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/11/business/china-vaccine-diplomacy.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">to repair diplomatic ties</a>. </p><p>But the loss of such rich economies will prove a blow to COVAX and the ACT Accelerator. Vaccines are notoriously expensive and risky to develop; the costs to manufacture doses at scale will be immense. <a href="https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/08/1070162" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus</a> stated the ACT Accelerator would cost roughly $30 billion, and the final bill for the tools to combat novel coronavirus would be at least $100 billion. But that's a pittance compared to the <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-imf/imf-says-10-trillion-spent-to-combat-pandemic-far-more-needed-idUSKBN23I27P" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">$10 trillion already spent on the pandemic</a> so far.</p><p>"COVID-19 is an unprecedented global crisis that demands an unprecedented global response," <a href="https://www.who.int/news-room/detail/21-09-2020-boost-for-global-response-to-covid-19-as-economies-worldwide-formally-sign-up-to-covax-facility" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tedros said</a>. "Vaccine nationalism will only perpetuate the disease and prolong the global recovery. Working together through the COVAX Facility is not charity, it's in every country's own best interests to control the pandemic and accelerate the global economic recovery."</p>
The winner won't necessarily take all<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQzNzY2My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjExMzA1M30.2kF2U_8veNWxmaxOnSned_WTQMRtscbB5dmT5efJHsc/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C180%2C0%2C181&height=700" id="55cd7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c56717cda300a40edc23795c8ee23c2f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="SARS-CoV-2 vaccine" />