Home >News >India >The benefits of small talk—even on Zoom

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 office water-cooler talks. 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 quick catch-up in the corridor.

Casual work-talk is often more productive than focused ‘brainstorming’ meetings—throwing around ideas with a colleague can lead to breakthroughs that happen spontaneously. All this and more are 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. 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 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 behaviours 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.

We all know that work chatter can sometimes be annoying—for instance, when you’re trying to focus on a deadline and a verbose colleague chooses that moment to walk up to your work-station to air his views on politics or the weather. 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.

“Small talk helps build trust, particularly between managers and their teams," says organisational psychologist Dr Aditi Raghuram. “It allows for social cohesion, which is the basis for cooperation. Sometimes it is the only means of social connection for people. Research shows that having even a single friend at work reduces the chances of quitting, even if the job itself is unsatisfactory."

In remote working situations, it might be a good idea for managers to encourage casual catch-ups at least once a week. “When we choose efficiency over connection in Zoom calls, we turn people into task-bots, as opposed to humans who need connection and relationships to work together effectively," says Dr Raghuram. “Several studies have shown that a quick ‘connection’ exercise at the start of each call helps reduce the fatigue people feel with Zoom calls. Small talk serves as such an exercise," she says.

For those who feel this will become yet another HR-mandated corporate construct, 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.

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