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Making small talk with coworkers can help you achieve more as a team, study finds

Taking time to chat about topics outside of work can help workers perform better on tasks

Photo (c) Frank and Helena - Getty Images
Creating a positive environment at work is key to employees’ happiness and job performance, and now a new study conducted by researchers from the University of California at Santa Cruz has explored how coworkers can gain the most from simple small talk. 

According to their findings, making time for small talk between employees that’s unrelated from work-related business can lead to better outcomes in the workplace and also make employees enjoy their tasks more. 

“An average workday now is getting the team together into a virtual meeting, where there’s a very clear goal and task,” said researcher Andrew Guydish. “You’re not talking to coworkers at their desks or in the hall. Everything is structured, and everything is essentially a task nowadays. So this research highlights the importance of perhaps trying to institute moments throughout the day with unstructured chat time.” 

Creating reciprocity in conversations

To understand how the small talk can benefit workers, the researchers analyzed data from a U.C. Santa Cruz dataset known as the Artwalk Corpus. The source has transcripts from nearly 70 different art walks, which required someone in a lab to virtually instruct someone else walking around Santa Cruz on where to look for specific pieces of art to be photographed. 

The researchers were most interested in understanding how often the participants were talking strictly about the task at hand versus how often the conversation veered to unrelated topics. They learned that having reciprocity in interactions, which allows both parties to contribute equally to a conversation, is what yielded the best results. When small talk was balanced with task-related talk, participants reported enjoying the task more. 

This is important when thinking of work-related projects because usually one employee has a leading role over one or more other employees. This dynamic can create an imbalance in conversations when the designated leader speaks more than others. But by creating time to talk about things unrelated to the project, everyone involved can feel like their voice is heard, which makes the whole experience more enjoyable. 

When one voice tends to dominate all conversations, this can create an exclusionary environment that makes it more difficult for others to share or feel engaged. 

“To understand this, you could draw an analogy to a classroom,” explained researcher Jean Fox Tree. “Getting feedback from the class tells the professor how they should be explaining something, and that helps everyone in the class, not just the one who’s asking the question.” 

While the researchers believe that people tend to go into interactions with the best intentions, finding ways to get everyone involved in conversation -- especially about casual topics -- can yield the best results in the workplace. 

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