Apparently, it does, but then again it may well be another myth that needs some busting when talking about the impact of remote / distributed work in shifting plenty of our mental models, behaviours and habits in terms of how work does happen nowadays. You see? Small talk hasn’t always had a good reputation. In fact, quite the contrary, it’s been considered a bit of a drag, to the point of having its own issues, specially, in this so-called hybrid workplace environment in which we are, literally, working from anywhere. So, why the fuss then, you may be wondering, right?
Why, all of a sudden, over the course of nearly three years now, certain people have been telling us, through different means, mostly mainstream news outlets and media interviews of high profile executives, they are truly missing the small talk while at the office. You know, the chit chat that usually happens just before that meeting starts, or while you are waiting to grab a cup of coffee / tea, or perhaps at the canteen, or even while walking down the corridor for your next appointment. All of that while, in reality, they just keep suffering from the 11th floor syndrome.
Do we miss small talk then? Apparently, we do. However, I beg to differ. We miss the fact we no longer converse with our colleagues, as we have moved away from the traditional office. Before we used to do it via osmosis, of all things, nowadays, we are terrified of intentionally reaching out to different folks, you know, to just have a chat. Oh dear. What’s happening to us and our deep conversations? Where did they go? Where did we go?
What’s wrong, seriously? I mean, small talk has got many benefits, according to different pieces of research, but at the same time it looks like we keep failing at identifying what we really mean with such informal exchanges of information, knowledge and experiences. It’s just as if we can only have small talk when we are all physically co-located, when, if you have been working long enough, either remotely or distributedly, you know that this is definitely not the case.
Worth noting for virtual work: office small talk really does matter. Causal, dull chitchat fosters connection & increases well-being at work, even though it is often distracting as well. Even people who prefer solitude can benefit. It is worth making time for small talk virtually pic.twitter.com/KaWNQ1LzEw
— Ethan Mollick (@emollick)
Like I was saying, small talk does have a massive business value proposition, from helping you build your own social capital and trust skills within (and beyond!) the organisation, to building incredibly powerful networks of both strong and weak ties. One conversation at a time. Yet, we keep getting trapped by the same false narratives, again, instigated by certain people, that try to undermine this brave new-normal of working distributedly that we’ve now both embraced and adapted to.
Whether you’re working from anywhere, or at the traditional office, the truth is we all need small talk. No matter how long, or how short, we all benefit from it. To the point where I have always strongly believed it’s one of the most powerful tools we have in our possession to help us strengthen our (personal business) relationships . Yet, why do we keep associating those informal exchanges as only exclusively available at a physical space, usually, an office, even for socialising?
Take, for instance, this recent article published at HBR under the heading ‘To Get People Back in the Office, Make It Social’ with a rather provocative question I thought was while reproducing over here:
‘[…] So, the question becomes, what is a compelling reason to come into the office? When asked what would motivate them to come into the office, employees had a resounding answer: social time with coworkers.’ [Emphasis mine]
Oh, hold on, it gets better. Much better:
‘Our latest research at Microsoft reveals the answer may lie in what I believe should be front and center for every leader: reconnecting employees.‘
Oh, you didn’t have enough with that one? Let me add another one then, please, if I may:
‘It’s simple: People care about people.‘
Can I cry now? Maybe not. At least, not yet. Perhaps we would need to go through these statements first from the same article:
- ‘85% of employees would be motivated to go into the office to rebuild team bonds.
- 84% of employees would be motivated to go into the office if they could socialize with coworkers.
- 74% of employees would go to the office more frequently if they knew their “work friends” were there.
- 73% of employees would go to the office more frequently if they knew their direct team members would be there.’
Oh, dear, I am done. I can start crying now, ok?
Where the h*ck have people been the last 18 years? I mean, in what other planet have knowledge (Web) workers been living in during all of those years after Web 2.0 (2004), then Enterprise 2.0 (2006), then Social Business (2009) took the business world by storm? Am I the one who has been living in another planet and I just didn’t know it? Really?
Gosh, I am starting to wonder …
But wait, don’t rush into despair just yet, there is still more coming out of that article:
‘Leaders need to intentionally use the office to rebuild social capital: the value workers get from their networks, like getting new ideas and inspiration, being able to ask for help or advice, or finding new career growth opportunities. Social capital isn’t a nice-to-have; it’s crucial so that employees can do their best work and organizations can keep innovating. […]’
You know where I am heading, don’t you? You know exactly what has been missing so far everyone seems to have been ignoring right from the start. What I haven’t mentioned just yet, what plenty of other people, specially, senior leaders / managers didn’t even seem to have in their vocabulary, right from the very beginning, because you know, why bother when we all know it will all disappear in just a couple of years from now (=then).
I don’t know about you, but I am about to burst into tears just thinking about all of those wonderful wasted years, while those same executives / senior leaders offer us kindly three ways to lure us all back in the office to get back to work and re-build our social capital:
- ‘Strip away busywork
- Create new in-person rituals
- Whatever you do, do it with authenticity’
Well, allow me then to share an additional way of how we can thrive with our orchestrated (=facilitated) serendipitous knowledge discoveries, small talk, social capital, building stronger personal business relationships, and what not; collaborating, cooperating, innovating, co-creating, learning, sharing more effectively, while we continue to work from anywhere, thank you very much:
- Starting using an Enterprise Social Networking platform (ESN).
(You are already 16 years too late! About time you talk AND do Social. And mean it.)
Oooh, and, please, Yammer (or MSFT VIVA Engage) doesn’t count, I’m afraid. It’s just an Activity Stream of sorts. You’d need a proper ESN to work the magic. To properly understand what it is like becoming a Distributed, Socially Integrated Enterprise.
8 thoughts on “Myth Busting – Does Office Small Talk Really Matter while Working Remote / Distributed?”
Luis can you please offer the name of a proper ESN? I struggle on this point because all I have is Yammer. And it’s tough enough to get executive buy in there but it is miles sorry kilometers (!) better than email. I need to see something tangible here to understand truly what I am missing with just yammer.
Thanks a bunch for dropping by and for the lovely feedback! I know what you are thinking and by all means I don’t want to imply that Yammer doesn’t have any value. It *does* have it, perhaps a bit limited though. Allow me to explain …
Yammer is just an Activity Stream. Essentially, one of the several components from an ESN that follows the metaphor of the ‘River of News’, a constraint stream of updates flowing through. But such a stream is something you provoke as in something else you’d have to do in order to make the most of it. It does not allow you to conduct work *in it*, as you would normally do in any given ESN.
Yammer, again, is an Activity Stream, one of the components of an ESN, but you would still be missing Blogs, Wikis, Forums, Social Bookmarks, RSS newsfeeds to syndicate content (Pull model, vs. just Push), Social File Sharing, Tagging, Social Task Management, etc. etc. That’s what typically an ESN would add into the mix and why it would be flagged as ‘work in the flow’.
I am not too sure whether you ever bumped into this post I shared in LinkedIn over a couple of years ago 👉🏻 https://bit.ly/3rJWL2Q. In it, I try to detail all of the attributes a typical ESN would have / exhibit. Check out the comments as well from other people’s contributions. Then, once you have gone through the post, make a note of the different attributes Yammer hits and notice the ones that it falls short. That’s eventually what Yammer is missing to be considered an ESN.
And since you are looking for an example, I am going to share with you what’s been my old time favourite ESN so far that I have been using myself for over two decades: HCL Connections 👉🏻 https://bit.ly/3MfN8m8
There are plenty of other examples, but the main reason why that one is still my favourite is because its main focus has always been … the people, the connections, the networks and communities people build, nurture and sustain through it. Eventually, an ESN should be people-centric, and both the connections and the conversations, the queens, not content.
Oooh, one question you may want to ask executives to understand the power and impact of an ESN within an org. is this one: why did they never bother with them and yet they pay plenty more attention to Yammer?
You would be surprised about their answers!
Great blog once more. Just wonder what comes next, as all great ESN products have died off (or will soon), as the world has moved on as the narrative became that real-time chat functions in teams, that are closed and do not really allow accidental discovery and real chitchat.
After all these years I still struggle with all the different messaging platforms being used for business2business communication, email still dominates it seems. But direct messaging is the next thing, for over 12 years Whatsapp has dominated after SMS. Slack like platforms where next, but even the best slack is still a desert compared by the true ESN from the end of the high time of social business. Jive and Connections have (slowly) died off.
So I wonder what’s really next, I mean, most chatty platforms are again all about closed and small teams, intranets have been dead for years, and forums are a hit again (on the internet, reddit anyone). So what’s next for business… Going back to office almost sounds like a good idea to build your social skills once more.
Thanks a lot for dropping by and for sharing that superb commentary! I very much appreciate the kind feedback as well on this blog post 🙏🏻😅
I wish I had better news, my dear friend, but I am afraid I don’t. What comes next is essentially a lovely trip down the memory lane of what we used to have up to not long ago (i.e. ESNs), mixed with a technology lifecycle of repeating the very same mistakes we did over 25 years ago. Remember Groupware? Well, that’s what we have been stuck with for a good few years now, approximately, since 2013. Except that the interfaces are prettier nowadays, but still same good old. We can now probably call it Groupware 2.0 with all of these Messaging & Chatting Apps.
In summary, about the technology lifecycle, we have gone from groupware (default to private) to social tools (default to open) to groupware 2.0 (default to private again). So I guess the next step would be social tools v. 2.0, but I suspect it may take us a long while to get there. So far, we have been in groupware 2.0 for nearly a decade and IT vendors refuse to look into the larger picture of listening to end-users’ needs & wants and try to meet them. For as long as they don’t change their ways, we are out of luck! 😤
It’s of no surprise why email still reigns, frankly, although there have been some pretty interesting new developments coming along worth while looking into. The thing is, and this is the key, that we haven’t looked beyond the usual use cases of how we collaborate from over the last 50 years! Yes, reading it right, my dear friend, 50 years! We are very keen on defaulting to private, living inside our very own silos, protecting and hoarding what we know because we *still* think it will make us all indispensable, when it’s everything, but that! We still pretty much rely on meetings, email, instant messaging, file sharing and that’s pretty much about it. Vast majority of it, real-time collaboration / communications. The asynchronous world is one we have decided to ignore / neglect, when, in reality, it’s the most powerful. No wonder the many struggles we are going through!
So, in a nutshell, to your question about ‘what next?’ we need to keep pushing for IT vendors to understand they are not meeting our needs as customers and practitioners. They do their own thing thinking they know better than all of us when, in reality, they haven’t got a clue themselves! And it shows. The issue here is that WE ARE NOT CHALLENGING THEM AT ALL, we have just become sickening sycophants who want to be entertained, be stripped off our personal agency for convenience while we get told how to work most effectively for *their* benefit (and profit!) and not our own. For as long as we don’t change that, we start challenging the status quo and calling the BS behind IT vendors we will keep repeating the same technology lifecycle, except that, a decade on, we are still stuck on groupware 2.0, because we just don’t seem to want to think AND do different.
Distributed work was the magic bullet I thought would pretty much nail those IT vendors to the ground as they keep perpetuating the myth of the hybrid workplace, yet there is also a certain group of people who are very keen on all of us to return to the office, so they can resume showing off their power, influence, status and what not. And we bought it. Again! Once again, we are doomed, although perhaps a bit more poignantly nowadays as we are just being literally slaughtered and with our consent!
See? What next? shouldn’t start with what digital tools are we going to use next, but with a healthy, constructive and productive challenge of the sociology equation: how AND why do we want to work from here onwards? Same good old or perhaps try out something new? That’s the dilemma, the challenge, the opportunity, the key questions we need to ask ourselves … and PRONTO!!!
(We are running out of time … )
Your response makes me smile, no grin, from ear to ear. Because I agree, it should never have been about the tools in the first place. When thinking about collaboration is about people connecting, working together, and sharing the fruits of their work to produce better results for their business. It’s about the outcome, not about the tools.
I have seen fantastic work in design workshops, where you get an amazing result with just paper and stickies, and some stickers to vote. Just last week I did a workshop on Open Source talking about the ways we should collaborate to produce a better outcome for our organization.
We have discussed of the year’s many topics on the technology side, that’s because it interests me personally how technology and people mix to make a better world. However, as long as the tech companies make money on it, it won’t be easy to be a better world. As you so well point out it’s a brutal lifecycle of products where investments and ROI on investments are more important than the long-term benefits of an open and transparent and co-creative culture.
I do think that the only way forward is that demand ways of working in our daily life that really help us be more productive. This means that in the end, it is about culture, work ethics, and about us wanting to collaborate and openly share our knowledge. You point out that some people tell us that we should go back to the workplace/office, and that this might be more about the exertion of power than about a better work culture. It is about control, it’s very old, and we sometimes forget to ask the important question: Why do I need to be in the office? And What do I do with my co-workers when I am there? And how do I work with them in the office and the people that are remote?
Study after study that is financed by all the big-tech and VC-funded companies to convince us that we need to go back, also tell us to use their products to be “more productive”.
What’s next for me? Not sure, I have said it before, but I think with every team I have to ask the hard questions, why are we a team, what promotes the sharing of knowledge and how do we do it so we don’t have to hunt for information, or play e-mail Tetris. For the last 3 years, I mainly worked in Mattermost (an on-premise slack clone) and all team communication is open and direct. I think that will be part of my personal behavior going forward. Same for knowledge management, documenting our knowledge in a co-creative environment by nature. And a design tool to brainstorm and write down idea’s on an endless canvas. I really have no need for the concept of “documents”, unless I want to explain it to people that are not part of my direct team.
So we have to pick our tools to fit the team, the situation, and the context I work in… what’s next on an enterprise scale? Maybe we no should stop hoping that the big tech will ever solve this, and start to wonder how we can invest collaboratively in tools that matter to us, make open-source software that works for small and very large groups, is distributed by nature, is secure by design, is deeply democratic by design too… maybe just maybe we should not bet on companies that want to make money on us, but want us to be successful in the long term. Because as long as we are betting on companies that have “stakeholders” demanding growth year over year, maybe we are just not looking in the right direction for long term succes.
It’s so refreshing to read your remarks, Robert, about the questions people aren’t asking. Honestly, I’m completely dumbfounded that these questions aren’t being asked and I can’t think of any logical reason why, other than status quo bias. Welp…this is what we’ve always done. Must. Proceed. The. Same. Way!
I’m finding it a struggle to get people to engage logically on this subject. The other wrinkle I always throw in is that more than 1/2 the people I interact with were never at my office to begin with. What about them? Should they come to MY office or should I go to THEIRS? 😝
Well, of course that’s not practical so then what? How do we glue together geographically dispersed teams? I’ve done it with Yammer, but in my current area, the interest in that is low and I’m pushing a rope. But push I shall continue!
Oooh, Justin, plenty of what I wrote to Rob’s blog comment would also be very much applicable to the kind of work you’re doing yourself as well. Please don’t despair, keep pushing the needle, keep having way too much fun challenging the status quo of how certain things work, because eventually we would just need a single crack for the wall to go down.
Remember the focus over here is not necessarily the final destination, but the actual journey and what we may co-learn together along the way. That’s what pioneers do. The rest, again, is just a mere distraction.
Thanks much for the inspiration and for the amazing journey we’ve enjoyed so far! Keep it going! We need it!
Thanks a bunch for taking the time to write such a lengthy and thoughtful response with some really fantastic insights! I very much appreciate it 🙏🏻😅 Interestingly enough, there is a lot that we share in common and perhaps allow me to take the liberty of adding further up into what you said to see where the conversation will take us …
You know what? With the emergence of distributed work at scale throughout the pandemic, I thought we would finally be able to shake off our fetish with technology and focus on what we can do with it, i.e. those outcomes and deliverables you mentioned above. I guess my good intentions died the moment we started seeing the perpetuating obsession of working longer hours, more meetings, more tools, more fatigue, exhaustion, more overload. In short, burnout.
It’s as if, for a minute or two, we saw the light, we got terrified by that shining brave new-normal of the near-future ahead of us in which we could redefine work in our terms, and we decided to go back to the cave. That very same cave we have been b*tching about all along with regards to how bad it is to us all. To the point of literally killing us. It never ceases to amaze me our innate ability to hurt ourselves (and others!) just because we can, when in reality we could just do so much better!
RE: ‘[…] as long as the tech companies make money on it, it won’t be easy to be a better world’ < While this is certainly very true and rather accurate, I would also say that customers shouldn’t run scot-free from the responsibility and accountability of having a say in the matter. After all, all of these IT vendors exist in our business world, because customers buy their products without really questioning whether the decision is the right one or not, whether those tools would be meeting end-users’ needs & wants, and whether they would help us all work more effectively, openly, collaboratively, together. Or not. More often than not we have learned they keep adding into the overload, the exhaustion, the fatigue, the proliferation of both tools and options, eventually ignoring the most important aspect of the whole equation: why?
The purpose. Why are we doing the things we are doing and for what purpose? I fear for as long as customers don’t start questioning their why? we would continue to be stuck where we are: IT vendors telling / selling us what they think is best for us without having a single clue what they are taking about in the first place!
And you know the poignant beauty of all of this? It’s that we have a choice and we have decided to choose the one that harms us all the most, not the one that would help us make things better. For everyone.
RE: ‘[…] it is about culture, work ethics, and about us wanting to collaborate and openly share our knowledge.’ << YES!!! Why is it that difficult to understand that? I suspect because those who would want to ‘impose’ a certain culture would demand it should work on their terms, not those whom they are supposed to be serving in the first place. To me, it’s not just about power, it’s also about crowd control and how it’s exerted upon all of us because we just can’t comprehend what it would mean to, *finally*, free up the ‘Human Batteries’ for what they know best: doing meaningful and purposeful work they own, with an impact, helping us co-build a better, more just, democratic society in which everyone counts and has a voice. Silly me, how naïve!
RE: ‘What’s next for me?’ < Keep going, please! Keep asking the tough, most uncomfortable questions no-one dares to ask others, and themselves!, any more. Be the outlier, the positive deviant, the rebel at work with a mission to want to improve things, to help others achieve their full potential through different business practices, behaviours and habits in which technology acts as an enabler of better work, better outcomes, better us, eventually.
Questioning and challenging the current status quo is where the game is at. I know it’s a hard, tough job at times. Perhaps not the most rewarding, but, again, like I have been saying for the last two decades, our mission in this world is all about being able to plant the seeds for someone else in a different generation, YEARS LATER!, collect a wonderful harvest they can enjoy. That’s the legacy we have in our hands. It’s our choice to make and ours alone. Everything else, it’s a distraction that deviates us from our core mission: make the workplace a better ‘place’ for everyone. Regardless!
Thanks ever so much for the WONDERFUL conversation! I have been missing these for a loooong while and I guess I can only finish this blog comment with a single emotion … 🤗🤗