What is often considered a harmless distraction for office workers may actually be providing some long-neglected wellness and productivity benefits. As more and more jobs offer remote work options, the daily social ritual of small talk or “water cooler conversations”—and any benefits they might be carrying with them—seem to be fading fast.
For most adults, their job tasks take up a significant portion of energy and time on any given day. Being in a physical work environment and socializing, even minimally, with coworkers can oftentimes make up the bulk of an employees’ socialization for that day or week. With more companies turning to work-from-home options, casual conversations about weekend plans or current events are disappearing and may negatively impact individuals’ social and emotional wellness. While these same casual conversations could happen over phone calls, video conferences, or online messaging, they are less likely to arise organically or occur unless there is more intention behind establishing communication. Encounters between colleagues that don’t work together never happen; spontaneous conversations cease to exist.
Unfortunately, the less-tangible benefits and costs of small talk have not been paid much attention. Recently, the Academy of Management Journal published a study on how small talk behaviors affect workers. The results showed that these informal interactions positively affected employees’ emotions while at work. While their research also showed that small talk could negatively impact their ability to engage fully with work tasks, employees were also capable of mitigating any negative effects by self-monitoring how frequently they allowed themselves to be distracted.
Remote Work Increases Focus, But At What Cost?
Employers and employees alike have often viewed remote work as being a more efficient and productive option. Informal in-office socialization and minor distractions can be completely eliminated by not congregating in an office, saving time and energy. Thus, remote employees with less distractions can get more done quickly and efficiently from the privacy of their home offices. Without any social ties to the workplace community, though, employees are missing out on experiencing positive social interactions and, perhaps, sacrificing some of their emotional health.
Furthermore, the creativity often fostered by group discussions and chance encounters disappear. Many companies have spent years recreating their physical office spaces to encourage casual encounters between their staff. There is a strong belief that unplanned interactions can lead to work-related breakthroughs, new ideas, and refreshing perspectives. Taking a mental break or listening to another’s thoughts or stories can, quite often, improve mental and creative performance. Of course, what may be lost (or gained) by remote work when it comes to employee mental and social wellness will likely always be difficult to measure or value and may vary substantially between industries and types of jobs.
Challenges With Employee Retention
While still valued by employees, remote work is no longer quite the highly-prized benefit it may have once been. Instead, it is quickly becoming standard practice in many places and industries—even more so after COVID-19 policies hastened their adoption at many companies that were hesitant about work-from-home options. Its prevalence has increased employment opportunities for workers, now that physical location matters much less, and has diminished its overall value as a work benefit.
Employers may soon be struggling with talent retention and attraction efforts because of this. Not only are they competing with more employers for talent, but they may face more challenges retaining current employees due to a lack of community. Without regular interactions with other coworkers in a physical space, remote workers likely do not develop the same emotional and social attachments as they would in an office every week. Strong workplace relationships and culture can retain talent—even when employees are offered better pay or benefits elsewhere—but without these features, other benefits would take prominence.
Wellness programs have the unique opportunity to rebuild some of that sense of community that may be lost working remotely. Companies that care for their workers’ wellness and health with holistically-minded benefits can create that sense of emotional attachment and appreciation in their workforce. Employees value feeling valued. Investing in employees’ well-being through social get-togethers, generous mental and emotional health resources, family and caregiving support, and flexible scheduling shows them that their employer is more than just a source of income but an integral part of their lifestyle. While it may require more effort and intentional communication, companies will be rewarded with more dedicated, happy, and productive employees.