Thanks to Covid-19, virtual meetings have replaced face-to-face interactions in workplaces across the world.
In the process, we’ve lost the social chat that used to be a feature of office life. How can we get it back?
That’s the question that Microsoft posed to a team at its research lab in Cambridge, England.
After interviewing people in Austria, Ireland and the Netherlands, they discovered just how much personal relationships between colleagues have suffered during the pandemic.
They also found that virtual conferencing is creating its own conversational norms around politeness and etiquette, as well as being influenced by pre-existing relationships and hierarchies in organisations.
And water-cooler moments, where people naturally talk socially, are hard to replicate in a virtual world. So they came up with these tips to help us regain those all-important non-work-related interactions with our colleagues.
Plan informal gatherings
Social meetings using virtual conferencing can’t just happen at random times. People have work to do and may very well pause notifications to allow them to get on with the job in hand, stifling informality.
So the researchers suggest scheduling social meetings around workplace rituals, like tea and coffee breaks or lunchtimes.
Although working from home means some people prefer to have lunch with those they live with, organised lunch sessions can help build connections, especially for new recruits.
“Colleagues can engage and disengage in conversations as they eat, moving in and out of conversations,” the researchers say. Formalised socialising routines also reduce bosses’ fears about losing productivity and are less disruptive to employees’ workflows, they add.
Even though virtual meetings have been a new experience for many, traditional ways of behaviour persist – particularly around the senior staff. Junior team members still tend to defer to others in online meetings, the researchers say.
So the Cambridge team suggest introducing playful ways to allow anyone to take the floor, like using emojis or augmented reality tools such as video filters to react to what is being said.
Quizzes, games and other shared activities can also help promote social interactions, the researchers say. They recommend the use of quiz bots not just to host fun activities, but to schedule them too.
Doing something else while you are supposed to be in a Zoom meeting is a temptation to which many of us have succumbed. Not surprisingly, meeting organisers and teammates can sometimes find this disrespectful or distracting.
But the Cambridge team say multitasking can actually be helpful in virtual social meetings. “Our results also suggest that multitasking during the social talk is common, being accepted from both a speaker and listener point of view.”
Employees told the researchers they found it hard to sustain attention in social sessions, particularly when the topic was not relevant to them personally. Multitasking helped them reduce so-called “Zoom fatigue”, leaving them free to concentrate on the parts of the meeting that relate to them.
Avoid overly large groups
Virtual socialising has made it easier to engage with larger groups online than in person, say the researchers. The technology allows people to overcome physical barriers to meeting staff from other teams and locations.
But in large groups, the topics of conversation will inevitably become more general and therefore less specific to the individuals taking part.
Participants may then find the meeting less worthwhile than if they had been in a smaller group.
Most social conversations in the workplace tend to be one to one. Even when people talk in groups, it’s common for individuals to break off from the group and talk together.
Yet existing virtual meeting tools don’t allow these side conversations, the team points out.
Working from home has been blamed for causing loneliness and mental distress. A separate Microsoft report found that time spent in virtual meetings has doubled since the start of the pandemic and employees working from home are becoming exhausted.
The Cambridge report says virtual tools can reduce barriers to meeting colleagues, maintain day-to-day social contacts and even improve workplace connections. But it also says that more work is needed to make those tools fit to replace the casual conversations we all once had in the workplace.