The Understated Importance of Office Small Talk

Office workers sharing their thoughts
Credit: fizkes / stock.adobe.com

Idle chit-chat about the weather or whatever happened on the latest episode of The Bachelor might seem frivolous, but it could be one of the most important social bonding glues around. And its absence from the workplace is starting to be felt.

Small talk is something we don’t pay attention to, but studies show it actually makes up one-third of all adult human speech. And a new study from Rutgers has highlighted just how important it is in the office.

Jessica Methot, an associate professor of human resource management in Rutgers’ School of Management and Labor Relations, led the study, which had over 150 people document their daily actions at work in pre-pandemic times. The results were remarkable.

“On days they had more small talk earlier in the day, they reported feeling higher positive emotions – friendly feelings, gratitude, pride, more energy,” she says. “And that positive emotion and energy elevated their well-being and made them feel less burned out – and give them more energy to help their coworkers.”

In the current world of office interactions happening via regularly scheduled Zoom calls rather than random run-ins at the watercooler, those boosts are absent. And, as a result, it’s harder to build workplace solidarity and high-quality connections with coworkers.

“One of the things small talk does is it builds trust and rapport,” says Methot. “You can’t build a strong, collaborative, trusting, standing relationship with someone without having had small talk with them. … This is where we’re able to get a sense of someone. We’re reading them and getting attuned to their energy and emotions.”

It’s important to clarify the meaning of small talk. It’s not gossip, which is usually targeted at someone or something. Gossip can be exclusionary and often has negative connotations. Small talk, though, is inclusive – anyone can join in. It’s light-hearted, superficial, polite conversations about surface-level things, ranging from weather to surface moods to shared pop culture moments (i.e. “Did you catch that funny Super Bowl commercial?”).

Pedantic? Sometimes. A distraction? At the wrong time, certainly. Small talk even has a script. If you’re asked ‘How are you?,’ the expected response is ‘I’m well, thanks, how are you?’ Deviations from that stand out.

Beyond acting as a social lubricant, though, small talk lets people transition into deeper topics, such as what they’re working on – and that, in turn, can result in collaborations and innovation. (Methot’s study isn’t the only one to highlight the importance of this. Harvard’s Andy Wu, looking at the effectiveness of stand-up meetings, found that didactic conversations – instructional talks that usually happen between meetings – are much more likely to result in innovative ideas.)

And we’re missing that interaction more than we realize. In the work-from-home environment, our interactions are less spontaneous. They tend to be scheduled meetings and are more transactional, which means less energy and fewer positive emotions. The serendipity of the random encounter is gone.

“Small talk is one of those things you can have really briefly, but people are missing it and grieving the loss of being able to bump into someone and chit chat with them,” says Methot. “That energy we would get from face-to-face encounters with someone and reading their social cues is gone. That’s completely eroded.”

Engineering spontaneity is a particular challenge, but some companies are giving it a try. That could take the form of a Slack channel that is purely socially focused, where employees can chat about hobbies, pets, fitness goals, etc. Others are dedicating the first 5 or so minutes of Zoom calls to catching up.

There are imperfections with that approach, of course. Seeing yourself on camera makes it more awkward and it’s harder to focus on just one person with several on screen. But it’s better than nothing, says Methot. And it helps create some sort of transitionary moment to help people get into a work mindset, now that the line between our home and work lives has blurred so much. (Think of it as the modern equivalent of a commute.)

Better still? Don’t be afraid to connect with a colleague to talk about nothing – even if it’s via text or message. Workers have become so isolated through the course of the pandemic that it feels awkward to just reach out to say hello. But that little gesture could have significant benefits for both parties, says Methot.

“People feel disconnected and miss their friends, but don’t reach out,” she says. “Everyone is feeling Zoom fatigue and is overwhelmed with childcare and shortened work hours and we don’t want to impose, but you doing that is also beneficial for them. They see someone is thinking of them, realizes they are there and wants to check in.”

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

Chris Morris

Chris Morris is a veteran journalist with more than 30 years of experience, more than half of which were spent with some of the Internet’s biggest sites, including CNNMoney.com, where he was Director of Content Development, and Yahoo! Finance, where he was managing editor. Today, he writes for dozens of national outlets including Digital Trends, Fortune, and CNBC.com.

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