Some time back I wrote a column on the importance of small talk in “today’s virtual world, where so many interactions happen online … small talk is more than a conversational lubricant. It’s essential in making a human connection and letting your colleagues and co-workers know that you care enough to ask them about non-essential things.”
As COVID forced a mass retreat from the main office to the home office, all of us have had to make numerous adjustments, big and small. And some welcome, some not. The overarching challenge was figuring out how to make the home hospitable to work — or, put another way, how to balance the informality of home with the structure of work.
By necessity, many of us did get better at small talk, which is not all good. Have you noticed during calls how much more time we spend on light chatter before getting around to business? What used to be five minutes of preliminary throat clearing has now become a 15-20 minute schmoozefest. Try cutting it off before everyone’s had a chance to freshen up their drink and you’re met with scorn.
With the pandemic receding, business leaders are trying to define what constitutes business as usual is in these post-usual times. Some, like Elon Musk, are demanding that employees return to the workplace, while others are making at least a portion of their workforce permanently remote. But even if you are headed back to the main office where many of the ancient customs snap back into place, it’s safe to assume that the informality we cultivated by necessity will rear its tousled head and kick up its slippered feet.
It’s a general principle that you can’t go from informal to formal, unless you’re exchanging salutations after a hazy one-night stand. Jim doesn’t revert to James, Mary doesn’t become Ms. Jones. That’s not to say that a little informality is a bad thing; the problem is we’re well past informal and have grown entirely too familiar.
After two years a lot of information has been shared, intentionally and by accident: You’ve learned that the boss’s wife filed for divorce and seeks custody of the kids, and you’ve learned enough about the kids to not want any of your own (or to appreciate the ones you have).
You know far too much about your co-workers to remember what they shared openly or what they shared in confidence. Unfortunately, the same goes for what they know about you. It’s more than just a TMI problem, which is bad enough. It’s also the burden of needing to keep track of all the narratives and plot twists. You need to mentally file each piece of personal news a co-worker indiscreetly dropped on your last call, so you remember to ask the appropriate follow-up: So, did your biopsy come back? Did you patch things up with your brother-in-law? Is your daughter still dating that bum?
In the two-plus years we’ve lived and worked apart, we’re gotten uncomfortably close. With apologies to the Corleones, it’s not business, it’s personal, which is to say it’s become more personal than is good for business. I’m all for collegiality, going out for drinks and making friends among my colleagues and co-workers, but let’s make a deal: I won’t ask if you don’t tell.
"By necessity, many of us did get better at small talk, which is not all good. Have you noticed during calls how much more time we spend on light chatter before getting around to business? What used to be five minutes of preliminary throat clearing has now become a 15-20 minute schmoozefest."
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