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Revisiting the Power of Small Talks – How Can We Make Them Smarter & More Relevant?

FROM: Zenebe B. Uraguchi – 13. May 2022
© Helvetas / RECONOMY

It’s been one year since I wrote the blog on the Power of Small Talks. This week I was at the Hugo P. Cecchini Institute at Bern University of Applied Sciences. I was invited to share my experiences of applying small talks for creativity and collaboration in the institute’s ideation workshop.

While preparing the input for the workshop, I thought once again about what small talks mean and how they can become more relevant to contribute to innovative ideas through enhanced collaboration.

Indeed, I’m aware that people, including my colleagues and friends, question the role or usefulness of small talks. Some call them less authentic, idle chitchats, trivial, or distracting. Others romanticize them – as being critical to social fabrics, uplifting, and opportunities for transitioning into more important ideas and discussions.

I fully understand the skepticism or the overemphasis on the role or power of small talks. Yet, the discussion misses a more important subject of using small talks as lubricants for enhancing collaboration and generating ideas. We tend to forget that small talks comprise up to 35% of adults’ conversations! And small talks are rooted in our deepest natures as social creatures. Social connection builds trust and strong bonds, and this’s more so when done face-to-face (mostly).

Small talks in the changing nature of space and place

So, I wrote my last year’s blog on the Power of Small Talks under the context of struggling to be more creative while hunkering down at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic restriction. I thought staring at my computer for hours and not being able to meet people to discuss ideas – of course using small talks as a means – was affecting my ability to generate ideas and increase my motivation. This’s mainly true while trying to create new ideas and solve complex problems.

In other words, the way small talks have happened – either in-person or virtually – has been at the heart of my struggle. I also heard from many people that they’ve had similar experiences. The pandemic has made us rethink the role of space and place; it’s accelerated the debate about in-person and virtual formats. Steve Harrison & Paul Dourish distinguished “place” and “space”. They call a space just where we’re located, and a place where we act.

Yet, flexible working or learning modality isn’t new – it had made advances before the pandemic emerged. What the pandemic did was accelerate the pace and offer different possibilities. Over the last five years, the remote workforce has grown by 44% and over the previous 10 years by 91%. Also, research after research has shown the pros and cons of in-person and virtual collaboration for enhancing innovation. Yet, there hasn’t been a firm conclusion favoring one over the other. There’re reasons.

First, the pandemic didn’t seem to lead to the direct replacement of in-person interactions with virtual formats. Indeed, people have spent more time using online tools during the pandemic, leading to a longer duration. This has its impact: working more and in some instances having burnout.

Second, the pandemic has also affected the nature of collaboration. For example, it’s increased collaboration of people more with their strong ties as opposed to their weak ties. In addition, networks and collaboration showed patterns that are more siloed and less stable. A recent Yale research suggests that both our personal and professional networks have shrunk by around 16% during Covid.

The above points tend to indicate that the trend is toward a hybrid model in which the power of small talks can effectively be used both in the form of in-person and virtual modalities. More and more institutions are testing the hybrid model of working and learning including institutionalizing it.

As a word of caution: the hybrid model isn’t the silver bullet. One size doesn’t fit all. People want the good parts of in-person and visual models – that is, flexibility plus inspiration and real-time collaboration that the in-person modality offers. Organizations are also counting the costs and they want to operate their offices more efficiently by saving costs like utilities.

Microsoft calls the challenge of balancing in-person and virtual modalities the “Hybrid Work Paradox”. For example, while the in-person work modality provides a useful alternative to the fatigue induced by constant video conferencing, there are also different perceptions of what constitutes the “right” way to maintain work schedules.

Going beyond the space-place debate

It looks like that some institutions are convinced that work or learning may be becoming a “thing” we do and not a place we go to. However, I caution that this’s a hurried conclusion. There’s a need to reimagine the concept and practical use of space and place. What I mean by this is that work or learning shouldn’t be defined by where people gather but by how they feel included in the collective effort and the shared mission.

The spaces and places where we work or learn include everything from corporate campuses to satellite hubs to home offices to coffee shops. It looks like there’ll increasingly be clusters of meeting spaces and places that can be repurposed as desired. It’s also important to consider how these spaces and places are contributing to boosting employee well-being; gone are the days of just thinking about productivity in the economic sense. 

In addition, people don’t exist in isolation from their ecosystems (institutions /collectivities). Team innovation is influenced by (a) the composition of the team and its diversity (b) the team experience (c) the team context or climate, and leadership.

Lastly, effectively using the experience from the pandemic about innovation and collaboration will require the synchronization of management processes by different organizations. For this to work, we need to see what is around the ecosystem – that is, support functions (e.g., investing in technology, coordination and sharing, support in capacity like physical and human capital), as well as rules and regulations (e.g., clarity of human resource rules, enhancing leadership).

Crises, like the COVID-19 pandemic, drive changes and reforms that translate into opportunities. Are we effectively and systematically leveraging the opportunities?

 

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