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How to make small talk with colleagues again

June 23, 2021, 2:40 PM UTC
Tom Werner—Getty Images

Welcome to Worksheet, a newsletter about how people are working smarter in these turbulent times.

In this week’s edition, S. Mitra Kalita takes a look at how office reopenings mean reassessing how we communicate with and relate to each other at work.


Rule no. 1 is to suspend the rules. 

That’s the message from Katie Burke, chief people officer of HubSpot, when asked about the surge in meetups among colleagues right now. Ice breakers or no? Do you need a facilitator? Work agenda or just serendipitous conversation? 

“We want to beware of over-engineering things,” Burke said. “The same things you and your co-founder connect over might not be the same things that you and I connect over.”

Thanks to the majority of U.S. adults being vaccinated, offices opening up and employers setting up functions to integrate remote, hybrid and in-person, there are a lot of reunions taking place right now, both formal (think company offsite) and informal (drinks at the old dive bar).  According to a survey by the Global Business Travel Association, three-quarters of members say their employees are “somewhat” or “very” willing to travel for work now. That’s 12 percentage points higher than last month. Another survey asked people what they miss about the pre-pandemic workplace. Tops (61%) were conversations with other people. 

While opinions diverge widely on working in the office versus remote versus hybrid, most people agree that occasional in-person gatherings are healthy and even necessary to productive working relationships and collaboration. The challenge right now is that a lot of people already have been working together—before even having met in person. And so there’s an inevitable resetting of office dynamics and relationships to come in the months ahead. Some things to keep in mind: 

Reset the chemistry. 

After more than a year of video calls, this is a chance to make a first impression… again. “Taking the time to get to know people is key,” says Coni Judge, senior advisor for culture & employee engagement at the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. On videoconference, “we tend to dive right into the business side of things. No ‘how are you?’ or ‘tell me about yourself.’”

Don’t overthink the opening lines. How are you? Tell me about yourself. Perfect.

“People that tend to be on the higher extroverted side will find this process much simpler. People less extroverted will find this perhaps more daunting. A virtual relationship is a little easier to manage,” said Judge, also an organizational psychologist. “We are all getting to know each other again.”

Not everyone is relieved to be back. 

Speaking of introverts and extroverts, the reaction to the “return” is not universal joy. Beware of characterizing your relief or misery onto others. 

Overseas teams are still in the throes of the virus, reminds Burke, who also spoke at Charter’s Return to Workplace Summit yesterday. “There have been some horrible consequences of the pandemic,” she said. “Ask, ‘how are you feeling about it?’ Or, ‘how much time do you want to see others in person? Once a year? Once a month?’”

Weave connecting among workers into the everyday. 

If you’ve been waiting to gather in-person to create a culture of getting to know each other, you’re doing it wrong. Lucy Zhao is the founder of Nametag, which matches you with people you work with but don’t know well. Every Friday, users receive a list of colleagues they direct messaged for the first time that week. And then they schedule a one-on-one chat.

“We need breathing room to actually have small talk,” said Zhao. “To ask ‘how’s your day?’ instead of being always late to the next meeting.”

A lot of people have rolled their eyes at virtual coffees and lunches over the last year (guilty), citing Zoom fatigue. Burke asks you to rethink for the next phase of the pandemic workplace and just try. “We get in a transactional mode on Zoom,” she said. “Being more relaxed takes more work to do sometimes. These are the rituals of our non-work self … that normalize the fact that I am a human person.”

Don’t forget the basics. 

If you are having a gathering and new hires don’t know your work culture, don’t forget the obvious questions on their mind. Burke says employees at HubSpot, which runs a customer-relationship management platform, created a Pinterest board to show people the range of office attire. If there’s a gathering, maybe spell out what people will be wearing so the new guy in the suit doesn’t feel left out. 

Many workplace experts also said they are asking veteran employees to take the newer hires on “virtual tours” of the office that are more useful than the sleek hybrid offices depicted in internal communications. Employees are more likely share important information like where the good coffee and bathrooms are, for example.

It’s been a heavy year. A little levity might be welcome. 

If you do icebreakers, think about the goal: to bond people, to allow them to let their guards down. Terri Gunnell, a longtime media technology executive, has spent much of the pandemic coaching and mentoring people through career transitions. She has a series of trusted icebreakers she turns to often, such as ”two truths and a lie” or getting people to line up by birthdays or number of years at the company without using verbal or written communication. She also suggests cooking classes and escape rooms if you have more time. 

“You’re trying to get people to come out of their shell and get creative. Also just to participate,” she said. “People are not okay right now and you want to get everybody talking and getting to know a little bit of each other.”


Wondering what else the future of work holds? Visit Fortune‘s Smarter Working hub presented by Future Forum by Slack.

This week’s reads

The great return?

The Return to Workplace summit yesterday featured in-office advocates, remote-work evangelists and everyone in between. (Charter, formerly known as Reset)

All onboard

How to onboard workers who started remotely (Harvard Business Review)

Post-Juneteenth

Corporate America, are you ready to do the work of freedom and inclusion? (WURD)

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