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Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Help! Must We With the Virtual Meeting Small Talk?

Dear OOO,

How much small talk is the right amount in video meetings? My company seems pretty equally divided between people who open by asking everyone about their weekend or something, and people who get right to the agenda in an effort to finish as quickly as possible. On one hand, the small talk feels forced, but on the other, it’s a rare chance to interact casually. What’s the solution?



The very first installment of this column opened with a reminiscence about the magic of conference calls, followed by one of my key rules of management: Most video conferences should be phone calls, and most phone calls should be emails. I’m no longer a manager, and in fact no longer have a real job at all, but being mostly unemployed has only strengthened my commitment to this philosophy.

In my old life, an average day consisted of somewhere on the order of seven to 10 Zoom meetings. By evening, I was routinely too exhausted to hold a normal conversation with my spouse, much less join the many invites for online drinks and rounds of trivia and birthday parties and so forth that became the norm during the pandemic. Zoom fatigue is real, and companies and managers need to do a much better job of preventing video chats from monopolizing employees’ work lives. These days, I have maybe one video meeting a week, roughly 2 percent of my previous total, and that reduction alone has made me feel more sane than I had in months.


Over the course of all those meetings, I witnessed wildly different approaches to chit-chat (or not) by meeting facilitators. Many gatherings opened with five or more minutes spent on small talk about the weather, people’s backgrounds, or yes, their weekend activities. (Only once, mercifully, did I encounter a formal icebreaker—asking each of the dozen or so participants “what hobby have you picked up during quarantine?”) Others, meanwhile, took a firmer hand. One former colleague, the kind of guy who reads articles about management theory for fun, was a fan of (nicely!) interjecting to get the meeting moving the moment the last person arrived. Most of us, though, fell somewhere in the mushy middle—no real interest in building small talk into the agenda, but too meek to cut off obligatory small talk even when it was clear that no one was enjoying it.

I will confess I tried to stifle an eye roll when that colleague opened a professional meeting with an icebreaker, and did some moderate to heavy sighing (while muted, of course!) even at the less-structured form of chatter. I would have much preferred to spend a few minutes stretching or drinking water or petting my dog instead of deciding which of my pandemic pursuits actually counted as a hobby while listening to the third person in a row sing the praises of their sourdough starter. As you can see, temperamentally, I skew toward my colleague who cut through the pleasantries to get to the reason we were all there.

That said, as you rightly point out, Matt, there is outsized value in casual interactions. I realize that people who have fewer meetings than I once did might be more excited to see their colleagues, if only on-screen, and less desperate to escape. Running into a coworker—especially one I didn’t usually work with closely — in the hallway or kitchen was a huge perk of working in an office, and often led to conversations that made our work better in addition to general warm feelings that made our jobs more pleasant places to be. Losing that has added insult to injury.

Here’s where I get stuck, though: No matter how valiant your efforts, I think the past 16 months or so has shown us that we can’t recreate the magic of casual office conversation online. Our pandemic era has been different and more terrible for all sorts of reasons, and I think we’re better off appreciating that instead of trying to solve an unsolvable problem. The social cohesion that grows from spontaneous encounters in the office doesn’t come from a go-around about people’s hobbies or a checklist of chatter about weekend activities, but from a type of free-flowing conversation that feels organic only when it’s in person.

Fortunately, we’re getting closer to bringing back the real thing. Even if you’re not back to IRL work yet, if your coworkers are vaccinated and in the same city, can you do either a meeting or a hangout in person? Or if you’re spread across locations, can you schedule an online happy hour? (I’m on record opposing most virtual work hangs, but I’m more of a curmudgeon than most, and I certainly think they’re better than trying to bring fun conversation into normal meetings.) And remember to pick up the phone occasionally, just to shoot the shit.

Just as importantly, when you are on videoconference, there are better ways of sparking conversation than prompting small-talk topics. Ask for feedback on an idea or a process, or hold a brainstorm. You need people to feel like you care about what they have to say, but there are more meaningful ways to do that than asking them about trivial things. Save that stuff for the first time you bump into someone in the office kitchen.

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