Given the current state of working from home for many companies, instant messaging is the go-to communication method.

After a few weeks of using instant messaging, however, I noticed the distinct lack of small talk and spontaneous conversations that would usually happen. Conversation that would happen when having lunch together, grabbing coffee, or just passing by a coworker’s desk. Our team used to communicate much more often due to the in-person interactions.

We do have a group chat for my teammates, which we do chat on occasionally, and we do some small talk before meetings formally start, but the amount of personal communication has decreased.

A retroactive observation made over the past few months of the pandemic points towards spontaneous conversation being more than just about socialization. Conversations allow us employees the chance to better understand the overall circumstances and health of the company (eg. new hires and departees), gives us a choice for short breaks from the work routine, and lets us better bond with other members of the team.

Knowing these potential advantages, what can we do to simulate our normal in-person interactions and spontaneous conversation, and facilitate it between our team members?

Note: we do have daily scrums.

Edit: Have gotten some deleted comments that I am simply projecting onto my team members, and should leave them alone. For the record, I am thankful for the reminder, as I had not considered that I could be projecting before that. I will definitely keep it in mind, but I will clarify that I am not trying to force my colleagues to talk, I wish to find an online way to let us carry out our daily conversation if we wish to, not conduct an experiment on my fellow coworkers.

As such, I will clarify what I am looking for in terms of an answer: methods to encourage online conversation between my team, without disturbing our workflow should we choose not to participate in it.

I hope that this will address the concerns of some, and I should note I believe that these methods will actually be better when done online: people cannot 'escape' from small talk without at least giving some cursory response when in person, but can be more free to choose when to participate online, especially in groups or channels.

Update (April): I have followed the advice and answers given here, which have all been useful. I have mostly been passively observing the conversation without making any suggestions yet, but it seems that having a general/random channel has been useful.

Update (August): There are now periodic 'coffee talk' meetings scheduled over the past few weeks, that are fully optional. People looking for conversation are thus able to join and chat face to face about casual topics, and thus far this option has been quite useful. In a similar vein to the other question about departing toasts to our team members, video conference toasts to the employees has also been working well as an alternate medium to a farewell lunch.

Additionally, I've added a retroactive observation to the main body, about the other potentially beneficial effects from casual conversation, and gave out a bounty for the existing answer that suggested a 'coffee time' first, as it has been working decently.

  • I don't see a way to contact you, but I would love to get your feedback on aboutsnack.com, which is literally tackling this specific problem. – Gajus Apr 6 '20 at 21:24
  • @Gajus Sure, I can provide some updates in a week or two :) – Enthus3d Apr 6 '20 at 21:50
  • What's the update on this? Would be really interested to hear how you've been working to increase those 'spontaneous' conversations and whether it's been successful? Thanks – Arabella Jul 14 '20 at 13:22
  • @Arabella Thanks for asking. Unfortunately, so far we have not been able to increase 'spontaneous' conversations by relying solely on general channels or IM. Most of our conversations occur in daily standups, as well as some Bi-Weekly meetings. The office is now employing code Red/Blue, essentially splitting the office into two teams to work there, but social distancing has still led to little social interaction. We have not had a chance to use Sococo yet due to some delays, but I will update when we try it. This state of isolation seems to be the new norm, but I'm sure things will change. – Enthus3d Jul 14 '20 at 16:58
  • Maybe you don't have that much in common. It's easier to jump into a conversation when you're in the office working and overhearing something interesting people are talking about. But when you're in a chat channel you have to actively read everything. If what your co-workers talk about is mostly uninteresting, you're quickly going to lose interest and eventually consider it noise and a distraction. At least that's my experience. – dan-klasson Aug 28 '20 at 16:40

Persistent voice chat rooms.

Try having persistent voice chat rooms, like Discord. These are unmoderated'chat rooms' they're not formal meeting voice chats, they're designed for spontaneous communication. https://discordapp.com/ You might also include a 'meeting room' that people can switch to during meetings.

There's two types of Voice chats in the remote-world, meetings, and non-meetings. During a meeting people are less likely to bring up spontaneous chat because there's usually a purpose to the meeting.

Tools like Sococo https://www.sococo.com/why-sococo/ allow you to have a "Virtual office rooms" like a Breakroom, A quiet room, an open workdesk room. these 'rooms' are important to having people still feel like they're next to each other.

You have the freedom to 'switch rooms' at any time, and you'll instantly be able to spontaneously communicate with anyone in the meeting.

Using Voice chat, you'll have much more spontaneous communication that you would have with just text chatting.

It's important that not everyone is in the same room, as this could cause too much noise.

Voice chat rooms

  • Hi Nick, Thank you for the suggestion. That is a very cool suggestion, I will look into it. – Enthus3d Mar 21 '20 at 22:55
  • Sococo has a neat use in that people can "drop in" to ask questions in a much more spontaneous way than other instant-message/voice chat services, because you can designate rooms as quiet or open discussion types. It helps capture the spontaneity of seeing someone in a room and assessing whether they're open to being disturbed in a way I haven't seen other tools do. – Andrakis Mar 22 '20 at 0:32
  • I will select this as the answer, as we already have a general chat, but this might be a useful way to let people who wish to try talking to each other in simulated rooms as an avenue. It also makes things easier because of a lack of writing needed. Thanks for sharing this idea! – Enthus3d Mar 23 '20 at 2:49
  • Also in case your coworkers want to watch movies together and chat at the same time netflixparty.com – Stephan Branczyk Jul 15 '20 at 0:37

In my remote work environment, people occasionally post hyperlinks to interesting items, either related to our work or our city, or the epidemic, or whatever. Other people comment, and so we get a little bit of personal interaction.

We happen to use Slack, and we have a #general channel.

It's a good compromise between lots of distracting chatter in our work channels and no personal interaction at all.

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    I see, separating the work and personal channels for better segregation of interaction types. Thanks for the answer :). – Enthus3d Mar 21 '20 at 14:27
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    I would make sure that no important topic is posted in the #general channel as some people would like to turn off notification for such a channel. – OSGI Java Mar 22 '20 at 1:09
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    There is usually a #random or #chatter for that, and posting non-work-related items in #general is poor etiquette in most organizations. – chrylis -cautiouslyoptimistic- Mar 22 '20 at 2:10

Mind you that there are workers who get pretty much annoyed with all that small talk culture happening in offices — when people chat just for the sake of it without any business purpose. They make effort to participate just to be nice so that you won't even suspect they hate it. These people get huge relief when the need to do so comes off with remote working.

What can we do to simulate our normal in-person interactions and spontaneous conversation, and encourage it between our team members?

Consider whether the team actually wants it. You might be surprised to learn that many just want to get work done and that's all.

Get people focused on work first: when they need to communicate because the work requires so, they just do it and the question does not stand. And if they can get work done without any chittering-chattering that is perfectly fine. At the end of the day, they are working — as opposed to participating in some sort of social gathering.

  • Of course, not every one of my teammates like to talk. I’m just trying to provide an avenue for those who do. – Enthus3d Mar 22 '20 at 12:06
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    +1. My favorite part about WFH so far is how little people distract me from my own work. – Catsunami Mar 22 '20 at 20:41

Ask open questions: Who, What, Why, How, When, Which.

See this list of examples.

With remote working, many people will find it easier to get into the "flow", and some might welcome having less conversations. It depends on the person. Try to understand what level of conversation your different colleagues are happy with, and try to use open ended questions to stimulate exchanges.

Instead of "I watched Frozen 2 yesterday, I thought it was great" ask "What did you think of Frozen 2? I watched it yesterday and I thought it was great"

They might reply later, but still engage. Also, keeping the video on in a shared chat might help as well (but again, expect some to say no).

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    This is good, instead of just stating what I have done recently, I can be more proactive and use it as an opportunity to learn if others have done similar things. We also do have video chat, although most do not use it, I suppose I can clean up my room a little and commit to using it, and see if there are any results. Thanks! – Enthus3d Mar 21 '20 at 14:22
  • I'd put emphasis on the first part - i.e be careful with this question technique depending on colleagues and the place you put them in. I'm happy to react to the occasional statement that I could equally well ignore. But I get pretty quickly annoyed if someone tries to force private conversation in a work environment with questions like that. If it's a separate "#fun" channel that is no problem, I can simply leave the channel, but if it's a direct message or a channel I have to be in, it's annoying noise. – Frank Hopkins Mar 21 '20 at 23:22
  • @FrankHopkins I will keep that in mind, thank you :). I'll try to slip in one or two in conversations that have already started instead of using it to jump start them. – Enthus3d Mar 22 '20 at 12:49

What can we do to simulate our normal in-person interactions and spontaneous conversation, and encourage it between our team members?

In one job, a bunch of us temporarily worked remotely while we were moving from one office building to another (not quite ready) building.

We designated one 1/2 hour period mid-afternoon as "coffee time". We all took a break from work, drank coffee or tea and chatted remotely.

  • So, essentially simulate a short break time for everyone to chat, to replace the usual coffee breaks. It's a great idea, thank you Joe! – Enthus3d Mar 21 '20 at 17:57
  • Good to hear, thank you for sharing :) – Enthus3d Mar 21 '20 at 18:36
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    This one seemed to work quite well, and yours is the first to suggest something along the lines of this. Rewarded with a bounty due to the relevance, thanks! – Enthus3d Aug 29 '20 at 23:16

Typically in-person interactions, just like meetings, require very little effort. Writing documentation, just like typing instant messages, require more effort.

That is why typically people prefer meetings to writing documentation. (Oftentimes writing documentation is more efficient than addressing the same in meetings, but that would be for a different discussion.)

I can think of two options, waiting until people will start missing the in-person interactions and will start having more small talks using instant messaging or waiting until all start commuting to work.

With less of small talk, I would expect that more work is done, but there are other large factors too.

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    Hm, so you are saying that everyone is trying to figure things out, and I can wait a bit for everyone to get more used to things before I try to encourage communication? – Enthus3d Mar 21 '20 at 14:23
  • Yes, that is what I am saying. It seems that in the current setting your team found little value in what you want the team to do more. Is there a good reason to change the team's behavior? – OSGI Java Mar 21 '20 at 14:57
  • Yup, that makes sense in some regard, I guess I can pick up on cues over time if they feel the need for it. – Enthus3d Mar 21 '20 at 15:20

Formally schedule an after-work online drinking time.

Formally schedule a time (usually on a Friday) after work where team members can hang out together online and drink alcoholic beverages, as the online equivalent of the business encouraging employees going drinking together after work as a team-building exercise. This is something that Atlassian does as a part of their efforts at building a workplace community - it's something their CEO mentioned in passing during an interview on (Australian) 60 Minutes tonight when discussing how businesses can do their part to help fight the Coronavirus.

The footage they showed displayed them using a software that allows multiplexed video chat (with each participant having a small box on the screen with their image), but presumably you could use whatever team-based collaboration tools your business is using - though, ideally, you'd want to use something suitably ephemeral to minimize the impact of people reading employees' drunken postings afterwards.

  • That's a good idea. Something outside of work would also not disrupt our working time. The quote you provide about 'something suitably ephemeral to minimize the impact of people reading employees' drunken postings afterwards' made me laugh. Thanks! – Enthus3d Mar 22 '20 at 16:05

From my point of view it would be useless. I don't know you team or your culture, but I (software dev myself) don't like being interrupted during work.

When I'm in the office I am the guy sitting there with ANC headphones and doing my stuff. When working from home, I enjoy that I don't have to deal with unwanted stuff.

So in conclusion I guess the go to option would be to make it possible to talk to each other, like an always ready communication channel (like previously mentioned e.g. Discord), but the the sake of the sanity of your team, don't force them or expect them to join. From personal experience I can say, I would close all these apps unless really really necessary.

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    As mentioned, there is no intention to force anyone to do anything. – Enthus3d Jul 16 '20 at 0:48
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    Yes I read, I was just little furious because it reminded me of an manager I once did. He called me for a one-on-one because he thought I was not a good worker because of the behavior I outlined above. This was very annoying since it did not end there. When I finally was able to do home office I received mails and messages from him, trying to archive something like you want to, but in contrast with force. That was a very bad experience. – Tobias Schäfer Jul 16 '20 at 8:48
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    I see. Yes, that can definitely be frustrating, I’m sorry you had to go through something like this. Every good team will have a diverse set of people, but not every manager we get will understand this. Thank you for sharing your own experiences, I hope that you’ve found a good roost to call your own :) – Enthus3d Jul 16 '20 at 10:15

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