You’ve probably heard this quote by Henry Buckle before: “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.” This quote dismisses gossip as frivolous chitchat.
But more than being a time-waster, gossip has its merits when finding out information in the workplace.
Gossip, by definition, is a conversation about other people that centres on juicy, unconfirmed details. These details might come up when you talk to your colleagues. But do you know that gossip has its positive benefits when it comes up in small talk? For starters, you can learn a lot about workplace movements just through watercooler chit chats.
When gossip is good
Gossip is not always negative. Positive gossip can occur when people share information about a person’s negative behaviour. For instance, if the workplace has a toxic manager, the talk can help newcomers be on alert to join the team.
It also works when people share the outcome of this behaviour because it helps those who hear about it correct their behaviour. It also helps managers identify the potential of their employees. One example is if you hear from team members praising a team leader for their transparency in making decisions. You will recognise the impact of this leader’s actions.
However, these positive impacts disappear when you are working remotely. Small talk that occurs as you take the lift together or meet each other in the pantry for a coffee disappears entirely. How does a remote worker have such opportunities to engage in small talk?
In this article, we put together a guide for remote workers to make small talk.
How can you replace small talk while working remotely?
Before the Covid-19 and social distancing, small talk was a common workplace ritual. It was normal to have hellos in the lifts with colleagues or before meetings, and swap stories about our weekends and families in the pantry. These encounters probably lasted only minutes but play a crucial role in making us feel emotionally connected at work.
Small talk also helps us transition to more serious topics like negotiations, job interviews, sales pitches, and performance evaluations. When we share trivial information about our lives, we also learn about our colleagues. This builds rapport and deepens trust. Some people dread small talk as they feel it spreads gossip and wastes time. However, research shows that small talk makes employees feel more connected to their organisation.
The upside is that the virtual landscape has many opportunities to enhance the value of small talk. Here is a how-to guide for remote workers to increase chances for small talk in their companies:
Step 1: If you are a team manager, encourage new social rituals online.
If you are hosting a meeting, it’s good to build in time before the meeting for members to greet each other and exchange pleasantries. This helps the team ease into the discussion and sets a positive tone. While it can be uncomfortable at the start if you are not used to doing so, it’s important to emphasise the human connection when working away from each other. A study from Microsoft showed that many European employers saw a decrease in innovation during the pandemic, which they attributed to the lack of human connection.
You can also create “virtual lounges” in Slack or Teamwork if those are your primary internal communication channels. In Slack, for instance, you can open channels where teams can socialise and have regular virtual coffees, trivia nights, and happy hours.
An INSEAD study showed that remote teams thriving in the new virtual environment were formally scheduling social gatherings involving quizzes, shared playlists, book recommendations, and movie clubs. The teams that didn’t engage in such rituals struggled to adapt to the new normal and reported feeling less connected.
Step 2: Be the change you want to see in your workplace
If you’re wondering, “How can I socialise while working remotely?” Whether you want or crave those small moments of human connection or want to find out more about the company, you have to start first. Before Covid-19, face to face small talk with colleagues might already be difficult for some people. There is an entirely Reddit thread dedicated to exploring why people in Singapore do not seem to like small talk.
So how can virtual small talk be less weird? You can start by offering help to others, especially when they are new. You can also be vulnerable and learn to share about yourself first online. Many people are more helpful online and willing to respond.
Both ways work to your benefit. By reaching out to someone new to check in on them, you are offering a line of conversation. You can approach them to ask if they need any help and how they’re finding a job so far.
Start a conversation about yourself that will not take much effort for others to chip in. It might create a discussion that leads to innovation—for instance, sharing your favourite co-working spaces in Singapore and the proximity of coffee spots. That might spark a debate about how people like specific spaces.
You can also reply privately to a public thread. A personal message to the person posting increases your visibility and starts a 2-way conversation between you. Of course, do not just say hello without context. Offer additional comments or resources, or perhaps send a compliment to the person who posted the thread.
One more tip – don’t start a thread that is focused on work. Small talk might have gone online, but the rules still apply. If you want to have a casual conversation:
- Keep it light.
- Avoid controversial topics like politics and religion.
- Stick to neutral topics like weather or sports. Food is a great conversation starter in Singapore if you’re starting a thread.
A conversation about food can diverge into pictures of their favourite dishes. When you work remotely with colleagues overseas, they are also curious to see what Singapore offers.
Keep the conversation positive, even when it goes into gossip. Remember: good gossip can help the team progress.
3. Step 3: Make routine check-ins a common workplace habit
New online apps, such as Water Cooler, set a fixed window for conversations and prevent abuse of productive work — something that’s more difficult to manage in face-to-face settings. The app allows employees to pick a time to chat with coworkers about their shared interests.
For managers, make it a point to also check in with employees and encourage them with questions like:
- Have you been feeling more or less connected today?”
- “Whom can you reach out to if you need support?” and “
- What relationships are the most important to you?”
Simple strategies like regular brief check-ins do a lot to ease employees’ feelings of loneliness. Research shows that employees feel more sense of belonging at work when their coworkers text or email to ask how they’re doing.
For remote workers, Zoom meetings and online communication channels are expected. While we work in co-working spaces, we might not miss face-to-face conversations with colleagues since we have our co-working buddies. But small talk and positive gossip are paramount to helping us mesh with the company culture.
So, even as we work remotely, we need to make time for casual conversations and seize opportunities to connect across the virtual divide.
Of course, if your co-working buddy is also your colleague, then you have the best of both worlds. Using this guide to navigate small talk and remote working is our best chance for ‘normal’ workplace interaction for the rest of us.