Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses have implemented remote work environments. While this type of work was on the rise since well before the pandemic, it is now more commonplace than ever before. Some companies are now thriving in this new business model, while others have had to overcome significant challenges in order to continue operating efficiently. Either way, one element of traditional office work seems to have taken a major hit, and that's office small talk.

Small talk in the workplace may not seem important or even necessary, but research indicates that it can be beneficial in many ways. Earlier this year, a study led by Jessica Methot at Rutgers’ School of Management and Labor Relations found that office small talk "created positive social emotions, like gratitude and friendliness, and encouraged heightened organizational citizenship behavior and well-being."1

In other words, people who engage in small talk with their coworkers tend to have a more positive outlook on their job, the company, and their work overall. And this is good for a variety of reasons, including morale, productivity, loyalty, retention, and overall motivation. The study was conducted with 150 people who agreed to document their daily work interactions over a period of three weeks and how those interactions affected them. The findings are in line with conventional wisdom from before the pandemic.

As the team at Slack said back in 2018, "It might be tempting to reserve conference calls only for formal meetings, but phone or video conversations present a unique opportunity to chat with remote team members about work- and non-work-related topics. Discuss their hobbies and interests and ask for their thoughts on company processes in a less formal setting—it all helps to cultivate a sense of community within the digital workplace. Asking in-office employees to call in for video conferences can also help eliminate the feeling that remote workers are on the outside looking in."2

Small talk tends to include discussions about the weather and other trivial matters, such as viral social events that capture a moment in pop culture or trend online. It may include mentioning that you saw a new movie that was just released, checked out a new song by a particular musician, or saw an exciting sporting event. These types of things help people bond and get to know one another. Such conversations are how people find out what they have in common, and this can be tremendously beneficial to team building and camaraderie.

In a remote work setting, however, it's not easy for these types of conversations to happen organically, so as a business owner or manager, it may be up to you to help foster an environment where remote employees can create such bonds. Perhaps you invite your team to a viral Happy Hour and include an e-card for a beverage or snack for them to enjoy during the event. This would make the viral Happy Hour a more festive occasion. Take advantage of employee birthdays or upcoming holidays to encourage conversations and create a little on-the-job fun.

"Engineering spontaneity is a particular challenge, but some companies are giving it a try," notes Chris Morris at Nasdaq.3 "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."

The Zoom meeting strategy does enable you to have some control over the time spent engaging in small talk, so it doesn't go too far in terms of taking away time from actual work. A method like the chat channel or something similar, however, gives employees a little more freedom to speak openly without worrying about taking up others' time, and the transparent nature of the channel is likely to keep the small talk opportunity from being abused.

Whatever avenues you choose to encourage small talk among employees, just remember that it is an underrated tool in helping your staff feel more connected with one another. Don't hesitate to jump into the discussions yourself if you have something to contribute.

1. https://www.rutgers.edu/news/heres-something-you-never-thought-youd-miss-office-small-talk

2. https://slack.com/blog/collaboration/remote-workers-employee-engagement

3. https://www.nasdaq.com/articles/the-understated-importance-of-office-small-talk-2021-02-26