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The Power of ‘Small Talks’ for Creativity & Productivity

BY: Zenebe B. Uraguchi - 25. April 2021
© Helvetas

Gratitude is one simple but crucial thing that I try to remind myself of during crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes, for example, being healthy (including mental well-being) and having an income to put food on the table. This should make us appreciate what we have.

That's just a preface to an equally important topic. More than weathering the storm, crises can also be a strong driver of creativity and productivity. This was my assumption at the beginning of the pandemic — while taking care of my health, I’d be able to use the time to think and do things more creatively and productively.

I insist that I am not wrong about being grateful. Looking back, I was wrong about assuming that I’d be more creative and productive while working from home. The answer seems to lie in the power of small talks and social interactions. Bear with me, because I’m going to explain why and how.

Why small talks still matter

It can be a banal chat about the weather – ‘it’s already April but it’s still cold’. It can also be a simple exchange of pleasantries – the ‘how are you doing’ question. Such conversations may seem superficial, or trivial.

With social distancing and work from home, some may think that the ‘purposeless’ small talks won’t be around for many years to come. Those who try to avoid small talks may rejoice in the ‘death of small talks’ by finding an ‘acceptable excuse to avoid these niceties’. However, this sounds like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Small talks still have the power of ‘putting us at ease and helping us transition to more serious topics’, such as green economic development, achieving inclusive development, or any other topic of complexity. Put simply, small talks can become ‘big talks’ of greater values.

You may wonder how small talks are close to our work in development cooperation and we should try to embrace them as a way to improve relationships, team morale, and productivity. This happens in two ways.

First, facilitating inclusive systems increasingly needs innovative solutions by closely working with partners and understanding complex behaviors and patterns of communities and individuals. For this, small talks through in-person interactions and exchanges are critical for joint exploration of ideas and solutions. Because it all comes down to building a positive culture within and outside of the organization, building trust and connections, which can lead to creative ideas and foster inclusiveness.

Second, informal networks which are sustained through small talks, like community organizations and faith-based groups, are filling gaps in resources and services often left empty by traditional public and private organizations. Let us not also forget that crises restrict contact with family and friends who provide vulnerable groups like women support and protection from violence.

I’m not ignoring the fact that small talks can sometimes be distracting. In most cases, however, these conversations are rooted in producing aha moments and impactful insights. Unplanned and often spontaneous interactions aren’t possible by just hunkering down at home chained to our desks and spending many hours of Zooming. Ideas don’t emerge out of anywhere. They’re often borne out of social interactions and debates. In other words, ideas emerge from ‘the interactions of millions, not from the plans of a few’ through formal meetings and work schedules in the office.

Here’s an interesting finding by Michael Andrews on ‘bar talks, informal social interactions and invention’ in American history during the alcohol prohibition. He showed that prohibition had a lasting effect on the direction of inventive activity. While I don’t want to suggest that alcohol is the driver for innovation, the point is informal and formal interactions complement innovation.

The bigger picture — the future of work

Perhaps there may not be such thing as ‘getting back to normal’. For workers, there are a few changing behaviors that seem to be appealing — from cutting transportation costs to dressing more casually or enjoying a more personalized workspace and time with family members. For organizations also reduced overhead and digital transformation are positive drivers for working from home modality.

In other words, work may be becoming a ‘thing’ we do and not a place we go to. This may be true to some extent. I may be again wrong, but the most likely effect of the pandemic is hybrid models of remote work. This’s even possible mostly for a highly educated, well-paid minority of the workforce, according to a study of 2,000 tasks, 800 jobs, and nine countries by the McKinsey Global Institute.

Access to infrastructure (from sufficient Internet connection to having enough space in the house), as well as other conditions, are not available for a large number of people, including developed countries. Writing about the ‘Privilege of Working From Home’, A. Cetrulo, D. Guarascio, M. Virgillito showed that occupations difficult to do remotely are located at the lower end of the employment structure. On the contrary, it’s only people organizing their work activity, giving orders, or are responsible for high-level administrative activities who can work remotely with fewer difficulties.

Yet, remote workers need small talk, too. My fear is work from home diminishes the opportunity for small talks with colleagues and partners or communities — in the office or visiting a country for work. Instead, combining remote work with office work may be better than shifting substantially or completely to work from home modality. As said above, a few seasoned groups of highly skilled professionals are capable of finding interesting ways to reinvent themselves. However, for the majority of workers, it seems that casually socializing in the spaces around offices or meeting somewhere outside of offices is a source of creativity and a sense of belongingness.

For sure, it’s also possible to cultivate small talks when there is no office — meaning virtually through introducing small talks as part of the daily workplace ritual. The problem here is that Zoom and other channels aren’t the most natural venues for small talks. For example, it’s pretty difficult to know what others are up to without emailing them or meeting them in a planned, formal meeting. Even if ‘virtual coffees/teas’ are emerging to fill the gap, often calendars of people are jammed with more urgent virtual appointments. People are already experiencing ‘Zoom fatigue’.

To conclude, I’m increasingly convinced that it’s quite difficult to ignore the power of face-to-face social relationships and human interactions for breeding creativity and enhancing productivity. Innovation needs collaborative effort. Collective efforts, in turn, require a sense of belongingness and emotional connections. Small talks grease the gears of cooperation and create closer connections, enabling us in the process to effectively interpret human emotions and connections.

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Programme Manager, East Europe, South Caucuses & Western Balkans; Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies