Small Talk, Big Results

The importance of small talk to distributed teams

Recently, a friend joined a new team as part of a reorganization, so each member was new to working with the others. The team atmosphere felt very quiet— all business in chat and calls, with minimal small talk. He asked if I thought that was okay. While it seems understandable in the short term, I believe a lack of small talk can be detrimental to a distributed team.

In an office environment, small talk happens naturally. It fills in the moments while a team is walking to the conference room or waiting for one last teammate to step in. Drink station chatter is so typical that "around the watercooler" appears as a segment about pop culture and strange events on many TV programs. Conversation-filled team lunches are easy to coordinate, and rarely all business, start to finish.

In a distributed workspace, where team members are not in the same building—or even the same time zone—finding opportunities to make small talk can be more challenging. However, it is essential to cultivate an environment where people interact outside the strict confines of their work assignments. Knowing a little bit about each other helps teams collaborate more effectively and builds trust that enables teams to move more quickly and make better decisions.

How can you build room for the kinds of casual conversations that bring a team together?

Make Slack social

One way is to have dedicated channels for offtopic discussion in whatever chat app your team uses. Many companies have a set of channels dedicated to socializing around various topics, like books, music, pets, or parenting, that are open to people across the company. These kinds of digital social spaces can bring people together who don't usually work together, build up rapport for when a cross-team project does happen, and foster greater empathy towards people in other business roles. Knowing people in different positions can help each individual do their job better as they develop a more holistic understanding of the business.

Use better Zoom settings

Another tactic is to make sure your video calls are hospitable to small talk. The time spent waiting for all attendees to join and get their audio working is a prime opportunity for casual conversation between those already present and helps break the ice for the work that will happen later. Sometimes particular settings are needed.

For example, in Zoom:

  • Make sure you have Join Before Host enabled, so your attendees can start chatting even if the person who called the meeting is running late.
  • You'll also want to turn off the waiting room feature, so people can get into the meeting quickly and aren't left stranded.
  • Zoom requires your meeting to use at least one security measure for who can join your meetings. To turn off the waiting room, you’ll need to either require users to be signed in to Zoom, or better yet, add a passcode to your meeting. The passcode can be embedded in the meeting URL, so team members can still join with just one click.
    • Recently at Unabridged, we had a few meetings that had been created with waiting rooms, and updated meeting settings weren’t persisting— the waiting room kept coming back. It was a headache to troubleshoot, but was worth spending time on to ensure all meetings start seamlessly and with plenty of small talk.

Make time for casual conversations

Even once everyone has joined the meeting, take a few minutes to chat before getting to work. In an office, you'd exchange greetings if you had all just sat down together at a conference table, and your online calls should include those warm pleasantries, too.

Teammates should also make a habit of scheduling 1-1 conversations just to catch up and get to know each other. There are Slack apps like Donut that facilitate random pairings of team members. These conversations can be just 15 minutes if you’re short on time, but try to make room for at least half an hour to give the conversation a chance to start flowing. The discussion in these meetings might be totally unrelated to work, but the virtual coffee time can also be a great place to catch up on what each person has been working on.

Don't force it

Finally, remember that none of what I'm suggesting here requires anyone to disclose anything they'd rather not bring into the workplace. Some people are naturally a bit more quiet and reserved, and it's best not to force interactions. Instead, you can make space for small talk to happen and foster an atmosphere of mutual respect throughout your workplace, then let each person's innate drive for connection do the rest.

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