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Workers talk at Proof Technologies Inc. in Austin, Texas. (Austin Distel photo via Unsplash)

Here’s a scene from your average pre-pandemic office: co-workers collecting around the company coffee pot or copy machine to chat about gardening, or how to best housetrain a puppy or the latest Marvel Comics blockbuster. Anything but work – and lurking nearby likely was a supervisor who would eventually come along and shoo them back to their desks.

But researchers and experts in workplace dynamics are increasingly concluding that such small talk and random social encounters among co-workers are important components of company and team cohesion, job satisfaction and employee well-being.

Management experts Bob Frisch and Cary Greene put it this way in the Harvard Business Review: “The chit-chat, the side conversations that lift emotions and promote well-being, … is one way we strengthen and deepen relationships and is critical to building high-performing teams.”

Indeed, more and more remote workplaces are exploring ways to virtually orchestrate and facilitate the informal encounters and chatter that can arise organically and spontaneously in physical offices.

Small talk, big rewards

The study “Office Chit-Chat as a Social Ritual” published last summer in the Academy of Management Journal found that “small talk enhanced employees’ daily positive social emotions at work” and “heightened organizational citizenship behaviors.”

A 2018 study found that employee loneliness and lack of workplace affiliations reduced both worker performance and organizational commitment, while a survey of 15,000 workers that same year found that employees with good friends at work were 33 percent more likely to be satisfied with their jobs than those without such relationships.

At the same time, many Silicon Valley tech giants have long been designing their offices to physically foster “casual collisions” between employees to foster collaboration and innovation.

“One of the biggest things that we’re missing in a virtual environment is all of that unstructured time where you get to know people and you chat about the football game or what was on ‘The Bachelor’ the night before,” said David Burkus, a business school professor turned speaker and author whose latest book is “Leading From Anywhere: The Essential Guide to Managing Remote Teams.”

When co-workers discover tidbits about each other such as personal histories and interests, he says they can discover so-called uncommon commonalities.

“Those things that people on a team have in common that other people don’t share that can create a bond,” Burkus explained.

“Workplace small talk has a stigma of being frivolous, and from leadership’s view, a waste of time,” said Jessica Methot, associate professor of human-resource management at Rutgers University and lead researcher on the “Office Chit-Chat as a Social Ritual” study.

Now,  judging by personal experience and anecdotal evidence, such daily low-level social interactions are among the things people have sorely missed in the wake of pandemic lockdowns, she says.

“It’s a case of not really pinpointing the value of it until we didn’t have it anymore,” Methot said.

She notes that various software platforms that help enable remote work, such as Microsoft Teams and Slack, now have “virtual lounges,” where co-workers can hang out for agenda-free socializing and a daily dose of small talk.

And small talk also has a more purposeful business role.

“What we found in our research is that small talk helps people transition from activity to activity,” Methot said. “We don’t usually go into a face-to-face meeting without having small talk first. So it’s really a social lubricant that helps us ease into more serious conversations, more controversial conversations.”

To reap these benefits remotely, she suggests inviting videoconferencing participants to join scheduled meetings 10 minutes early just to chat.

“This makes sure the meeting itself is not derailed by small talk, while giving people time to buffer and make a mindset shift,” she said.

As a word of caution, Methot says adds that small talk shouldn’t devolve into gossip or a conversation about a third party that often takes a negative tone. Without getting heavy-handed, she says management should, “clearly communicate with employees about what conversations can breed negativity and distrust and how to best maintain a positive and a psychologically safe team environment.”

Is there a ‘fika’ in your future?

A cottage industry has even sprung up amid the rise of remote work to provide virtual team-building activities and games, from online bingo to virtual dance parties and video scavenger hunts. While business author Burkus feels such group activities have their place, lower-key bonding activities may have greater importance.

“I think team-building in a virtual environment is more about finding deliberate ways to let people disclose a little bit more about their lives behind the Zoom screen and build those same bonds that would happen organically, or accidentally, in a virtual environment,” he said.

His favorite way to achieve this is with a “fika,” a Swedish term (that’s used as both a noun and verb) that roughly translates to “a coffee and cake break.”

More than just snack time, it’s a sort of ritualized pause in the workday for a period of unrushed enjoyment and socializing. Some businesses have begun adapting this Scandinavian break to encourage employee mingling.

“A lot of companies will have some form of a program where employees opt in to be randomly paired each week with somebody else to have a 30-minute fika — a non-work conversation,” Burkus said. “It creates that deliberately unstructured time, and it’s one on one, so self-disclosure is a little bit easier.”

The all-remote software company Help Scout has long held weekly fikas, reporting that the practice, “addresses the fact that birds of a feather do tend to flock together” and that fikas bring “folks across teams face to face to talk about life, the universe and everything.”

Australian business-consulting firm CBS Group started incorporating virtual fikas into their workweek during lockdowns and offers advice for running them.

There also are software tools to facilitate employee pairing, such as the Slack app Donut. Team-management platform Trello calls its employee-pairing tool Mr. Rogers, after the children’s show host whose trademark refrain was “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

And then there’s the firm Spark Collaboration, which began arranging one-on-one employee connections within companies (what it called “random coffee trials”) in person and virtually in 2012 and has since arranged as many 15,000 of them in a half-dozen countries.

“Short, casual, coffee-break conversations with people from other parts of the organization can really help employees feel more connected, both socially and with the organization,” said Spark Collaboration co-founder Michael Soto.

He has another name for these arranged one-on-one encounters: “casual collisions without the bruises.”

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