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The benefits of small talk—even on Zoom calls

Do office workers miss the casual chit-chat of the physical office, or are they relieved?

Office small talk can be both productive and disruptive
Office small talk can be both productive and disruptive (iStock)

The pandemic has taken many things from us that we would earlier indulge in fearlessly—going for a movie, relaxed Sunday brunches, a quick swim—and for most of us, office water-cooler talk falls in that category. While some people may prefer highly focused virtual meetings, the more social and outgoing among us miss the casual chit-chat of the physical office, whether it was sharing anecdotes over lunch, catching up on personal stuff while waiting for everyone to show up for a meeting, or the quintessential water-cooler conversations.

Casual work-talk is also often more productive than focused ‘brainstorming’ meetings—throwing around ideas with a colleague can lead to breakthroughs that happen organically and spontaneously. All this and more are now gone from our lives, hopefully temporarily, as the work-from-home situation continues.

A study published in the Academy of Management Journal by researchers Jessica R. Methot, Emily H Rosado-Solomon, Patrick Downes and Allison S Gabriel looked at the effects of casual work chatter on a small cohort and came up with some pretty interesting findings. The paper ‘Office Chit-Chat as a Social Ritual: The Uplifting Yet Distracting Effects of Daily Small Talk at Work’ reported the results of the study that the authors conducted over a 15-day period on 151 workers. “Although small talk comprises one-third of adults’ speech, its effects at work have been discounted…. Results showed that, on one hand, small talk enhanced employees’ daily positive social emotions at work, which translated into heightened organizational citizenship behaviors and well-being at the end of the workday; on the other hand, small talk disrupted employees’ ability to cognitively engage in their work... Combined, results suggest that the polite, ritualistic, and formulaic nature of small talk is often uplifting yet distracting,” the authors say in the abstract of the paper, which is paywalled.

We all know from experience that sometimes, work chatter can be annoying and disruptive—for instance, when you’re trying to focus on a project or on meeting a deadline and an overly verbose colleague chooses that moment to walk up to your work-station to air his views on politics or the weather or just about anything. We’ve all silently gritted our teeth in annoyance without knowing quite how to get rid of the pesky colleague short of being outrightly rude and dismissive. But at other times, small talk can be comforting; it helps us see each other as human beings with strengths and weaknesses and our own share of burdens beyond those at work. The Zoom call, in that sense, is deeply dehumanising—you see only a small sliver of the person and not the whole.

In remote working situations like the one that dominates worklife for most of us, it might be a good idea for managers to encourage casual catch-ups at least once a week. For those who feel this will become another level of the kind of meaningless and artificial corporate constructs we abhor, it doesn’t have to be quite so structured—just open channels of communication from time to time during work calls, and don’t see them as unproductive and a waste of time.

In an article in the Harvard Business Review, the authors of the study write that the results revealed that small talk was both uplifting and distracting. “On days workers made more small talk than usual, they experienced more positive emotions and were less burned out. They were also more willing to go out of their way to help their colleagues. At the same time, they felt less focused on and less engaged in their work tasks, which limited their ability to assist others. However, we found that one group — people who were adept at reading others and adjusting their conversations in response — were less likely to report feeling disrupted by small talk. We also saw that conversations didn’t have to be intimate or lengthy to deliver benefits. On the whole, it was clear to us that the positives of small talk outweighed the negatives and that those negatives could be managed.”

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