Office small talk can help leaders connect with employees, but there’s a downside

 Small talk is a significant part of our communication, accounting for a third of adult communication and serving as a relationship builder. Despite its importance, small talk's role in the workplace has been overlooked in management research. However, a 2020 study found that small talk has both positive and negative effects, as it can increase employee well-being and promote workplace citizenship, but it can also be distracting and hurt productivity. Nonetheless, small talk overwhelmingly benefits all employees, as it boosts mood and energy and helps transition into more serious conversations. Engaging in small talk can also help CEOs build camaraderie with their employees. However, small talk can be distracting for employees and unintentionally penalize certain groups, such as non-native language speakers, neurodivergent employees, and expatriates. Leaders can help these employees benefit from a small talk by creating programs that allow for social integration. Small talk can also create implicit bias, disadvantaging those who do not understand its related social norms. Since the rise of remote work, small talk's role in the workplace has become more critical, as employers try to replicate the creativity and collaboration that come with chance encounters in the office. However, attempts to foster small talk in remote settings have backfired, as virtual environments lack spontaneity and natural energy transfer.

Leaders can promote small talk in person through collaboration days at the office or by reconsidering the office layout. Interestingly, private cubicles or offices are more conducive to small talk than open-office plans, as they allow employees to focus on work while still being able to gather in lounge spaces or kitchens. Leaders should also act as role models by engaging in small talk to connect with employees and decompress, but they should avoid discussing performance. It's crucial for leaders not to prioritize efficiency to the extent that they unintentionally discourage organic small talk, and instead actively model small talk in public spaces. In remote settings, leaders can establish daily check-ins with subordinates via Slack or text. It doesn't have to be a formal meeting or a lengthy conversation, but it shows that someone cares about maintaining a connection. Leaders can also create Slack channels for discussions and hold five to 10 minutes of small talk before scheduled meetings. Employees who prefer to avoid such small talk can join the scheduled meeting when it starts, which is similar to how people behave in the office. Managers can recreate or create new social rituals for teams by acknowledging that it's impossible to replicate spontaneous, casual collisions in virtual settings, but brainstorming new ways to create social rituals.

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