COVID-19 Update

Here’s Something You Never Thought You’d Miss: Office Small Talk

Water Cooler talk
Since the pandemic, we are no longer gathering around the water cooler to gripe about the weather, or having the great breakroom debate about which Super Bowl commercial was the funniest.

A study led by Jessica Methot in the School of Management and Labor Relations reveals the value of small talk

An estimated 34 million Americans, or just under a quarter of us, are still working from home as we near the one-year anniversary of the first U.S. lockdowns. It’s changed the way we do just about everything, including the time-honored, time-killing tradition of office chit-chat.

We’re no longer gathering around the copy machine to gripe about the weather, or having the great breakroom debate about which Super Bowl commercial was the funniest. If we’re making small talk at all, it’s happening through video conferencing – which isn’t quite the same as leaning on your co-worker’s file cabinet while you talk and stir your coffee.

“Our work conversations have become much more intentional and transactional,” said Jessica Methot, an associate professor of human resource management in the School of Management and Labor Relations (SMLR). “Instead of bumping into someone in the hallway and striking up a quick conversation, we’re scheduling virtual meetings and communicating more by email. We’ve lost an important social ritual that made us feel noticed and interconnected.”

Small talk is lighthearted, polite, and relatively scripted in nature. “They say it might snow again.” “Hey, did you watch ‘The Masked Singer’ last night?” It differs from gossip, which is idiosyncratic and typically negative. “Can you believe what Chris said?”

Jessica Methot
Jessica Methot's study found small talk creates positive social emotions
Steve Hockstein/HarvardStudio.com

For her part, Methot is interested in small talk. In a study conducted before the pandemic, she and three colleagues recruited more than 150 people to document their daily interactions at work and how it affected them over a three-week period. The findings, published in the Academy of Management Journal, reveal that small talk created positive social emotions, like gratitude and friendliness, and encouraged heightened organizational citizenship behavior and well-being.

In other words, we feel better about ourselves and more connected with our co-workers after having those spontaneous conversations in the elevator. In turn, that makes us more likely to do a good job and help our colleagues.

“The impact was profound,” Methot said. “On days when employees made more small talk than usual, they reported feeling more energized, ‘seen’, and connected with their colleagues. At the end of the day, they felt less burned out and they were in a better mood.”

The downside is that small talk is also distracting, since it pulls employees’ focus away from their work. But the study finds that workers who are skilled at self-monitoring can reign themselves in and prevent it from hurting their productivity.

Methot, an expert on workplace relationships and social networks within organizations, believes the good heavily outweighs the bad. She argues that managers and frontline supervisors should encourage small talk among their staff as a way to build a positive organizational culture, inspire creativity, promote unity, and reduce isolation.

That’s especially important for managers whose direct reports are still telecommuting.

“Set aside a few minutes for small talk at the start of Zoom meetings, or schedule a virtual morning coffee break where employees can have lighthearted interactions,” Methot said. “Encourage employees to check in with colleagues as part of their daily work routine. Have them put it on their calendar so that it becomes a priority like any other task. All of this can help to reduce feelings of isolation and restore their energy.”

Methot admits that it’s not a perfect substitute for in-person interaction. While the study did not specifically address the impact of telecommuting, she suspects the social and emotional benefits of small talk are diminished when we work from home.

Virtual communication makes it harder to pick-up on body language, subtle facial expressions, and other nonverbal cues. We’re distracted by email, our kids, our pets, even the sight of ourselves on the screen. And we lose a feeling of unity that we probably took for granted all along.

“We experience a sense of ‘being in this together’ when we are physically present in a conversation,” Methot said. “This natural transfer of this energy erodes in a virtual environment. But it’s better than not interacting at all.”

The study was co-authored by Emily Rosado-Solomon of California State University, Long Beach, Patrick Downes of Texas Christian University, and Allison Gabriel of the University of Arizona. Rosado-Solomon received her Ph.D. in Industrial Relations and Human Resources from SMLR.