The Case For Small Talk

October 5, 2021 | Culture

Hey, how about that weather we’ve been having? I know, it’s not a terribly interesting question. Outside of a few people (and I imagine most of the meteorologist community), no one particularly enjoys talking about the weather, but sometimes you just need something to get the ball rolling.

Small talk is a way to get your foot in the door and lead to more meaningful conversation. I’d venture to guess that nearly every relationship you have in your life probably first started off with some seemingly meaningless chit chat about this, that, or whatever. It’s an immensely important part of our lives in general, and in business, it’s no different.

What Small Talk Communicates

Small talk isn’t just a way to kill time, or filler to make the beginning of a call feel less awkward – it’s about human connection.

When you ask someone about something, even as simple as the weather, you’re making an effort. You’re showing the other person that even if I’m grasping at straws here, I’m still trying to generate some sort of conversation and learn a little bit more about you.

Within organizations, especially as a leader, when you make time to hear about your employee’s day, you’re showing them that you truly value their being a part of your organization and what they have to say. You view them as a human first and an employee second. When you join every call and immediately jump right in, whether you mean to or not, you’re restricting the nature of that relationship from developing.

Putting it as simply as I can, would you rather work for/with someone who takes an interest in how you are or someone who glosses right over any attempt at personal connection?

Building and Maintaining Culture

Regardless of your team’s intentions with remote and in-person work moving forward, at this point in time, you’re likely still remote. Many companies have reported that across the board productivity and earnings haven’t really dropped as a consequence of working from home. So then why are people even debating going back into an office? It’s about the intangibles. It’s about culture.

We don’t have the same opportunities to encounter people in the office to bump into someone in the kitchen and ask how their kids are doing, or how their weekend was, or if they’re reading anything new. So if we’re going to continue working from home – and it looks like that will be the case for at least the near future – then we need to recreate those same positive dynamics of an in-person office.

In the case of new team members, it’s important to get them integrated as seamlessly as possible. And without being together in an office everyday, the time it takes for new employees to feel comfortable with their new team has undoubtedly increased. You have to compensate for the lack of face time with these moments of more personal connection whenever possible. A big part of the reason so many people have left jobs in the past year is because they don’t feel as connected to the company. Without making a concerted effort to incorporate them and develop a relationship outside of business dealings, how could you ever expect anyone to stick around?

Everyone’s Time Is Valuable

Now I know what a lot of people are probably going to say in response to some of this: I get what you’re saying, but I just don’t have the bandwidth in my schedule to carve out time for chit-chat.

I myself am guilty of this. Some days are just crazier than others with a mountain of work and what feels like 2 hours to get it all done. But the great thing is, people know that. So just be honest and say, “Hey everyone, I’m sorry, I would love to check in and see how everyone’s doing, but I’ve got a crazy day. Would you mind if during tomorrow’s standups we talked about everyone’s weekend?” They’ve been there. They get it. They understand. Your team will respect your time with no love lost, so long as you follow through and make time when you can.

At the end of the day, it’s important to realize that everyone’s time is valuable, not just yours. You may have the busiest schedule out of anyone, but that doesn’t mean that your time greatly outweighs anyone else’s. Time’s a finite resource – the only thing we will never get back – so when someone gives you their time to engage in conversation, that’s a truly selfless gift.

Final Thoughts

So how can you go about incorporating more of this in your daily practice? I’ve heard of some companies doing virtual water cooler meetings where they just talk about any topic for a half an hour. Some I’ve seen have put it as part of the agenda in most meetings. Others just allow it to occur naturally.  

At TangoCode, we make a point to dedicate even a small fraction of our recurring calls to small talk. Outside of that, we have company-wide zoom calls for each person’s birthday, where we deliver them a cake and sing to them. We also organize quarterly (sometimes monthly) get-togethers in order to share some food and a couple laughs. It’s little stuff like this that helps me realize I’m never wasting time with small talk, I’m investing it into these relationships that I value so deeply. Work with your team to see what fits best with everyone’s wants and needs, but whatever you decide, make it a priority.

You’ve worked so hard to build a culture in your company that you’re proud of, that people enjoy, and that makes coming to work enjoyable – why would you jeopardize that now by not nurturing it? Maintaining a culture is a daily practice, and now that we’re remote, it requires even more care.