Small talk is a big deal. Here’s how to help your employees have better conversations.

As much as some employees loathe small talk, research suggests it’s beneficial, as it can help them feel reenergized.
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· 4 min read

Count small talk among one of the many things we forgot how to do during the Covid-19 pandemic. In April 2023, as many companies were calling workers back into the office, Google searches for “what to talk about at work” grew.

The problem isn’t unique to the US. In 2022 Georgie Nightingall, founder of London-based firm Trigger Conversations, told the Guardian that demand for her conversational training courses had quadrupled within a year.

“There is concern, partly due to the pandemic, that people are just losing these skills,” she told the paper.

As much as some employees loathe small talk, research suggests it’s beneficial, as it can help workers feel reenergized. It can also serve an important purpose at a time when Surgeon General Vivek Murthy is calling attention to an “epidemic of loneliness and isolation” in the US.

HR Brew spoke to two experts to find out how HR can help foster better conversation among employees, even in a hybrid or remote setting.

The surprising benefits of small talk. Jessica Methot, an associate professor of human resource management at Rutgers, started collecting data on office chitchat in 2018, in the olden days when it was easier to strike up spontaneous conversations with colleagues in the hallway.

Methot and her fellow researchers surveyed employees three times a day for 15 days to gauge how they felt after making small talk with coworkers.

The study, which was published by the Academy of Management Journal in 2021, found that on days when employees had more small talk, “they felt more energized,” Methot told HR Brew. “In the afternoon, they felt more friendly, feeling more connected to their coworkers.” They were also better able to recover from stress at the end of the workday, she said.

How to help employees have better conversations. One feature of small talk is that it’s spontaneous — and that spontaneity is very hard to replicate in a virtual environment, Methot said.

Still, the pandemic made workers more adept at having conversations in different settings, said Fred Dust, author of Making Conversation: Seven Essential Elements of Meaningful Communication, who advises organizations on this subject.

“I think for better, we’ve suddenly become multisensory in the sense that we can actually deal with many different ways of having conversations,” he said.

Methot and Dust offered a few tips for HR departments seeking to facilitate better conversations — whether big or small — among their workforce:

  • Set aside time for chitchat. One of the benefits of small talk is that it helps ease transitions, Methot said. She recommended setting aside 15 minutes before a virtual meeting starts for employees to chat informally. It should be totally optional, she said, but can serve as a mental transition to help “grease the wheels” before the formal meeting starts. Such chats can also help leaders set “a positive tone for a future relationship, and [build] rapport” with colleagues.
  • Have daily check-ins. Quick, daily check-ins via Slack or other platforms can also help managers or senior leaders replicate small talk in a virtual environment, Methot said. Simply writing a message like “Hey, just wanted to see how you were doing, is everything okay?” can go a long way, she said.
  • Switch up the medium. The negative psychological effects of Zoom are well documented at this point, Dust said. He encouraged HR leaders to think about how a medium will affect a certain conversation, and consider other options, such as phone calls, when it makes sense.
  • Leverage hybrid work. Both Methot and Dust said hybrid work can help spur meaningful conversation, if structured the right way. “Some of the best organizations I work with, when they’re in the office, their work is with people in the office,” Dust said. Some of these companies have set rules for in-office work to ensure employees don’t spend the day on Zoom calls, he said. “The hybrid return-to-work strategy is a really good one, if people are in the office at the same time,” Methot said.
  • Avoid making sudden changes. Creating “conversational cultures,” Dust said, is “not done in spurts. It’s done by consistent ongoing practice.” From gun violence to political unrest to pushback on LGBTQ+ rights, there are plenty of topics today that pose a challenge for employers to navigate. Starting with small conversations, he said, can prepare them for having the harder ones.
  • “I think the best thing that we can do in workplaces is get a workplace comfortable with having conversation in general, so that then they can actually have conversations about harder topics when they come through,” Dust said.
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