How often have we idly chatted with a stranger within the office or our work buildings, maybe to inquire which floor they work on, which department they are in, or what project they are part of, only to discover common ground – perhaps an acquaintance or interest? It isn’t just with strangers. Sometimes, the most exciting part about coffee breaks is the opportunity to chat with a colleague, catch up on office news, or get to know the newest team member.

‘Small talk’ acts as an ice breaker, rapport builder, a positive reinforcer, and is a part of team bonding. It diffuses potentially stressful workplace situations (like a review or appraisal meeting). And, it is how friendships and workplace relationships are built, networks extended, and opportunities discovered. All of which support job performance and employee health.

Building bonds when working remotely

With COVID-19, traditional workplace behavior has changed drastically. Employees interact on calls but opportunities for small talk are reduced without the celebrated office water cooler, coffee machine, or lift lobby. While digital tools help employees collaborate for work, there is usually little space or time in the virtual workplace for a casual chat. This especially affects employees who have been hired during the pandemic or who have shifted location, as they have limited ways to get to know their teams, supervisors, or peers better.

More importantly, we sometimes share vulnerabilities during casual small talk with friends or peers. Without being able to have private in-person meetings or pulling someone aside to check in on them or reading distressed body language, employees and managers need other ways to drive small talk so people can connect and share difficulties.

Here are some ways to create opportunities for healthy small talk:

  1. Organize virtual meetings for casual interactions. This can either be in small groups or larger ones, which include people from other departments, with breakout rooms for casual chatter. It can also be carried out across different levels in the organization, for instance, between group heads and their teams, among teams themselves, within specific project groups, or for people located within a certain region. Interesting ice-breaker games can be planned where people showcase a non-work related skill. You can try some of these ice-breakers games for remote meetings.
  1. Schedule periodic video meets that are strictly off-work. Downtime with the team is important, no matter one’s role or designation. Managers can fashion a theme meet, whether it is cooking together, playing a virtual game, or having music nights. The use of upcoming audio conversation apps like Clubhouse also help create the feel of togetherness, confidentiality, and camaraderie.
  1. Use the intranet. Build new functionality into intranets so employees can securely and remotely access this. Allowing mobile-enabled access to the intranet also engages frontline as well as home workers, so they can meet, share, empathize, and connect.

Remote working or even hybrid work environments might be the norm in the days to come. Inculcating small talk opportunities within work-from-home models builds feelings of acceptance and belonging among distributed teams, resulting in higher performance and better morale.

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