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Small talk isn’t small

Small talk isn’t always small. It can be a really big deal, especially on a remote team.

Caro Griffin
3 min read
Small talk isn’t small

Small talk isn’t always small. It can be a really big deal, especially on a remote team.

When you share a physical space, there are opportunities to learn about each other while you wait for the elevator or walk to your favorite lunch spot. In a remote environment, you have to create those opportunities.

The good news is that the remote equivalent of these spaces probably already exist on your team. You just have to know where to look – in the two minutes you spend waiting for people to trickle into your Zoom call, or responding to someone’s musing in the #random room.

Small talk is a great place to start.

“Did you get a haircut? I love it!”
“Is that a new couch behind you? It looks so comfy!”
“Where are you working from today? Looks like it’s hoppin.”

Small talk gets a bad rap.

I think it’s because (a) we’re often forced into it by well-meaning strangers when we just want our coffee/Lyft ride/groceries and because (b) we all have too many meetings.

To the first, I say – sorry? I don’t know how to help you there. Except maybe we could get better at small talk and avoid exchanges like this:

“How’s your day?”
“Good, thanks. How about you?”

Really, y’all? GIMME SOMETHING.

For example: “Eh, not too bad. I slipped on some ice on the way in this morning and took a tumble, but I’m hobbling along. Hope the weather’s taking it a little easier on you?”

Give people something to respond to. If they don’t take the bait you hand them, that’s on them. You did your part.

On the other hand, I get the meeting thing. The urge to keep them as short as possible in a time where we all have too many is valid. But I promise two minutes of small talk is not the best place to save time.

Don’t shorten meetings by cutting the small talk.

Instead, make sure you’re having the right meetings, plan for them ahead of time, and actually lead them. (That five minutes you spend awkwardly dancing around each other, trying to figure out who’s leading the meeting and what you’re trying to accomplish? A better thing to kill with fire.)

Spend the two minutes talking to the team member you don’t often get to talk to, and then follow up.

The other day, a team member was cracking jokes about Dominos in our #random room. I later sent her a private message about how I was on my way to the gym but all I wanted for dinner now was a Dominos pasta bowl, and it was all her fault. We joked around a bit about our favorite toppings and then, a week later, when I finally gave into my craving, I sent her a uncaptioned photo of me enjoying my pasta bowl.

Basically, I treated my co-worker like a friend because that’s what I want us to be. It doesn’t make us any less professional or productive at work. I’d argue that it actually helps us work together *better*.

Keep the jokes alive!

The other day, I was in a sprint review where our Director of Engineering made a joke in her acceptance criteria about how her team was going to deliver a new feature to my team “with a bow on it.”

Suffice to say, there was no bow and we were crushed. We retaliated by naming our next sprint, “WHERE’S MY BOW?!”

Another team member dug up an 80s-era picture in which she’s wearing a big ass bow on her head. We spent two days making “bowhead” jokes.

Treat your team members as friends. Or at least, friend-like.

Enjoy your teammates.

When I was in college, I was an Orientation Leader for a few years and ultimately became the coordinator who managed the Orientation Leaders. I had a really great boss and the biggest thing I learned from her was that being professional does not mean always being serious.

One day, after I had nipped several jokes in the bud in an attempt to keep us on task during a morning huddle, she pulled me aside to say, “I worry you’re not enjoying them.”

She said other things too, but that’s what stuck with me. That it was not only okay to enjoy them – it didn’t mean I was slacking off – but that it was something I should actively try to foster on the team.

In your rush to finish all those projects, answer all those emails, and just generally get all the things done, don’t forget that you work with cool people. Talking to them might just make your day better.

People Ops

Caro Griffin Twitter

Caro Griffin is a senior operations leader who writes about remote work, no code, and building calm startups. She's a recovering web developer and digital nomad who calls Mexico City home. 🇲🇽