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As it turns out, we miss small talk

Updated: Feb 27, 2023

What was one of the most impactful findings from a recent Microsoft report detailing results from data on their newly remote workforce?

Employees miss their social interactions.

According to the report:

Human connection matters a lot, and people find a way to get it. We know that belonging is a core human need and that feeling a sense of connection is an intrinsic motivator. This is why work relationships are so important — strong social connections help employees feel happier and healthier and build stronger networks.

So, how can we maintain a sense of connection while working remotely?

How can we foster a positive team culture and sense of engagement?

How can we integrate social interaction into our remote work ecosystem?

In our recent study published in the Academy of Management Journal, my colleagues Emily Rosado-Solomon, Patrick Downes, and Allison Gabriel and I studied the daily effects of small talk at work. There is a more detailed summary of this research in an earlier post on this site, but in brief, we found that the sense of acknowledgement and rapport building was beneficial for employee well-being and prosocial behavior, despite its distracting effects.

Our research now has unanticipated practical implications: with organizations such as Amazon, Facebook, and Google “racing to be last to return to the office” and Twitter announcing that employees can now work from home indefinitely, it is critical for organizational leaders to create practices that integrate casual conversations into the remote work ecosystem to (1) help employees stay connected and boost well-being and (2) help employees transition between work and family responsibilities to reduce work-family conflict.

The negative stigma around small talk can be magnified when working remotely. Managers may try to streamline meetings by cutting out the pre-meeting banter, and employees may self-impose isolation by avoiding exchanging pleasantries or reaching out to connect with coworkers. But, it is critical that organizations integrate opportunities for casual interaction into their remote working ecosystem.

Prioritize casual conversations in meetings. Research suggests that effective meetings should be focused, relatively brief, and involve fewer than 7 people in order to boost decision-making effectiveness and reduce interpersonal aggression. But the value of small, brief meetings extends beyond these benefits; it also facilitates greater social connection, and less time is wasted if employees chit chat. Build dedicated time into virtual meetings for each member takes a moment to greet everyone and exchange pleasantries.

Strategically design interaction. Some organizations have taken steps to orchestrate casual, non-business-related interactions to create a sense of connection and help employees get to know their coworkers across physical distance. Companies with employees working remotely can pair them up with a random colleague in an “office video-chat roulette” for a 20-30 minute chat.

Create new rituals. For many employees, the greetings in the elevator and spontaneous chit-chat in the hallways serve as a social ritual that make others feel noticed on a daily basis and that help them disengage in one activity or task and transition into another. The loss of these rituals is profound, but leaders can help establish new ones to create a feeling of unity and solidarity that bonds employees. These include virtual morning coffee, virtual fireside chats, and virtual happy hours where employees can have lighthearted interactions.

Link small talk to your company’s culture. Organizations are networks of people engaged in the continuous flow of conversation, and observing how employees talk with one another can reveal a company’s culture. Over time, these conversations can generate honesty, trust, respect, and fun, or they can reveal incivility, cynicism, or distrust. Our research suggests that employees can reap the benefits of social connection not just through deep intimate relationships, but also through a brief, lighthearted conversation with an acquaintance. These conversations, if sustained among employees over time, can build a positive, inclusive organizational culture.

Help employees build a social health toolkit. As organizations invest in training programs centered on helping employees navigate the challenges of working from home (e.g., time management, work-life balance), they can also equip employees with the tools they need to assess and boost their own social health. Employees can create daily reflection time to ask themselves, “have I been feeling more or less connected today?” “Who can I reach out to if I need support?” and “what relationships are the most important to me?”, then take action to improve their social connection.

So, as we are navigating endless Zoom calls and childcare disruptions and leadership challenges, let's not underestimate the value of small talk: just because we might be working remotely doesn’t mean that casual conversations are no longer important.

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