According to science, every video meeting should start with one of these

Monday morning greetings and conversations between employees at the water cooler (or coffee pot) had been a staple of office life for decades. Enter 2020, and casual small talk among coworkers feels like a distant memory.

Nowadays we’re all having our business meetings remotely. While these video conferences and Zoom calls may be more than enough to take care of pressing business matters, they leave little time for casual discussion. 

That may not sound like all that big of a loss in the grand scheme of things, but a new study from the University of California, Santa Cruz makes a compelling argument for all of us to fit in some small talk during our next video call. In short, researchers report that a work-centric conversation is much more enjoyable when it is “balanced or collaborative.”

Let’s break that down a bit further. A casual conversation, whether it’s between lifelong friends or relatively new office acquaintances, is characterized by a give and take. One person asks a question, the other answers, and so on.

Business or corporate discussions are usually much more one-sided. Whoever is running that meeting, usually a manager or senior worker in the company, is going to do most of the talking while everyone else listens.

Up until now, casual conversations and bits of small talk in the office served to fill the void left by one-sided business discussions throughout the workday. 

“An average workday now is getting the team together into a virtual meeting, where there’s a very clear goal and task,” explains lead study researcher Andrew Guydish, a Ph.D. student in cognitive psychology, in a release. “You’re not talking to coworkers at their desk 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.”

No one enjoys talking with someone who dominates the conversation. It’s where the phrase “let me get my two cents in” originates from. This proclivity for a balanced flow of discourse is referred to as “reciprocity in conversation” by the research team at UCSC, and study authors say people frequently take action to speak more during a one-sided conversation. You’ve done it countless times over your life probably without even realizing it. 

After 15 straight minutes of hearing about Aunt Sally’s trip to the Grand Canyon, you’re going to try and change the subject or at least contribute to the conversation.

That moment you speak up and try to enter the discussion is an attempt at establishing some “conversation reciprocity.” Regarding business discussions specifically, researchers say the greater the conversation reciprocity between two coworkers while discussing or performing a task, the more both will report enjoying the assignment. 

Study authors researched this topic by analyzing 69 transcripts created during an earlier scientific project performed at UCSC. That experiment involved one individual in a lab setting video chatting with someone else and directing them through a stroll around downtown Santa Cruz to discover and photograph works of public art.

Participant pairs whose transcripts included more casual, balanced discussions while completing the collaborative navigation task also just so happened to report enjoying the entire experiment far more than other pairings whose discussions were dominated by the direction-giver and engaged in very little small talk.

It isn’t just about superiors allowing their workers to speak up more either. Researchers say reciprocity only really brings more enjoyment and balance to a conversation if the discussion takes a more personal, casual tone at some point. 

From a perspective of pure efficiency and time management, these findings may sound counterintuitive. How does it help a company’s bottom line if precious Zoom time is being used to discuss weekend plans or last night’s episode of The Undoing? Productivity may decrease slightly due to a few more minutes of small talk, but employee wellbeing and job enjoyment are quite important for any business’ long-term stability as well.

The pandemic has changed so much about our day-to-day lives. It seems insignificant, but just a few minutes of casual conversation can go a long way toward getting back somewhat of a sense of normalcy during these continually trying times.

The full study can be found here, published in Language and Speech.