Let’s be honest: The hybrid office is a disorienting experience. After feeling pressure from management to return, many white-collar workers who went remote during the pandemic are starting to pop into the office a few times a week. Even Zoom, a company specializing in remote work tools, now requires people to be physically present two days a week.
Office workers are coming back to absolute awkwardness. Video calls with just one-sixth of the meeting in the room. Offices stuck in perpetual hot desk limbo. Slacks to coworkers sitting a few feet away. Even though a level of performance and social formality have always been foundational to office work, the hybrid office can make casual communication even more difficult and confusing.
In the abrupt switch to hybrid work, some of the opportunities for low-stakes chitchat have evaporated. For example, gone are the days of arriving early to meetings so you can connect with coworkers and ask a few questions. “I came into the Zoom meeting about three or four minutes early,” says Deborah Tannen, author of Talking from 9 to 5 and a distinguished university professor at Georgetown. “I knew you would show up on the dot, because that’s the etiquette of Zoom.” She was right! I arrived exactly when the meeting was scheduled, leaving no room for preliminary small talk.
While the topics are often quite boring (weekend plans, the weather, their children), small talk between coworkers is crucial within the office structure. Instead of viewing it as a distraction, Tannen sees chitchat as a way to build worthwhile relationships between team members at work. It’s also a big factor when interacting with management. Who cares if you completed all your goals for this quarter? Remembering the name of your boss’s dog can feel just as important when angling for a promotion.
Want to get better at making small talk in a hybrid office? The first step is to embrace the awkwardness. “You have to be willing to accept the uncertainty going into that conversation and be curious about where it might go,” says Julie Beck, a senior editor at The Atlantic and host of the podcast How to Talk to People. Maybe the conversation will be the spark of a quality mentorship? Or, maybe it’ll just be an opportunity to kill five minutes while on the clock? Either way, a willingness to be present in the moment and respond to your coworkers as if they’re actual humans (which they are, for now) is critical.
Another way to improve your small talk is to become more observant of how your coworkers choose to communicate. “People have different conversational styles,” says Tannen. “How loud or soft? How close or distant do you stand? What’s your attitude toward interruption and overlap?” Observe your coworker’s conversational styles, think about how you’d like to be perceived during the conversation, and seek out opportunities to connect with others.
OK, so that mindset is helpful for in-person moments, but what about all of these awkward, online interactions? Hybrid office workers who are constantly on Zoom calls and in Slack threads need to consider the potential upside of digital small talk. “I believe messaging apps, as well as video and email communication, are a whole new set of cues and signals that have replaced the head nod and the lean-in for our modern workplace,” says Erica Dhawan, author of Digital Body Language. Controlling your in-the room presence can be just as important as projecting a collaborative, welcoming image of yourself on Slack.