During my team’s virtual holiday party, a co-worker noted that the way we talk now is for the benefit of a machine. That is, those pregnant pauses during group Zooms happen because no one knows when someone else is done with their “turn,” and it’s hard to have organic, flowing interactions anymore. But there’s a way to work around that: One recent study published in Language and Speech found that the benefits of small talk at work include actually raising happiness and productivity levels among colleagues—and that finding absolutely extends to remote-working situations.
And if the very phrase “small talk” is what makes you cringe, allow me to reframe: The study investigated transcripts of 69 conversations to identify both task-based and “off-task” communications and identified “reciprocity in conversation,” which essentially refers to a two-way conversation wherein people are engaged in what the other is saying. They found that higher levels of reciprocity in conversation, which should happen when people are working together on a common goal, is associated with higher levels of task enjoyment and productivity.
Striking that higher level of reciprocity in conversation, though, can be tricky in a digital workforce because, again, there’s an inherent lack of natural discourse regarding virtual meetings. You typically have a clear-cut “leader” and a pecking order of who speaks in direct response, especially when meetings grow larger with more and more participants. Without those unspoken roles, the meeting would be a disorganized, loud, incomprehensible mess. That said, this landscape can also remove the gratification that can come with normal face-to-face, person-to-person conversation—or even knowing looks from others that are meant just for you. That’s where the benefits of small talk can come in to help: If leaders are not only intentional in making small talk, but intentional in the way they create it, work productivity for all may benefit.
“An average workday now is getting the team together into a virtual meeting, where there’s a very clear goal and task,” writes lead study author and PhD candidate Andrew Guydish. “You’re not talking to coworkers at their desk or in the hall. Everything is structured, and everything is essentially a task nowadays. So this research highlights the importance of perhaps trying to institute moments throughout the day with unstructured chat time.” One way to do that? Kick off each meeting with five minutes of unstructured small talk.
“Small talk is critical to creating connections, but here’s the thing: There’s ineffective and effective small talk.” —Erin Hatzikostas, career coach
“Small talk is critical to creating connections, but here’s the thing: There’s ineffective and effective small talk,” says Erin Hatzikostas, career coach and founder of bAuthentic Inc. “The key is not to talk about the ‘expected’ things like weather, Zoom challenges, and so on. Instead, focus on creating truly authentic small talk—things that are a bit more unexpected.” Small talk can be incredible for making people feel included and making virtual meetings feel less formal. But, tone and subject matter are what matters for making it truly effective for work productivity. Her advice is to get a little vulnerable—even expose that bit of pandemic-life messiness—when you’re instigating conversation with colleagues.
“Mention that you’re late because your 3-year-old just flushed his sister’s [toy] down the toilet,” says Hatzikostas. “When you expose a bit of who you are, when people least expect it, that ‘small talk’ is a fast pass to connecting with those on the other side of the phone or computer screen.”
It’s easy to forget during your day-to-day that we’re talking to other warm-blooded and full-bodied people, not 15 dead-faced squares in a technologic void. So when you introduce small talk, you’re reminded of the lives existing beyond the screen—and everyone can use that slice of humanity to get through another work day.
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