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.