A man talking to colleagues using video conferencing software.
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Research highlights importance of social chat for hybrid and remote teams

14 Feb 2022

A study from researchers in Ireland suggests that teams should ‘make time to chat’ at the start and end of more formal video conferencing meetings.

New research investigating the impact of hybrid working and the way colleagues communicate remotely has suggested that social chat is vital for workplace wellness.

Researchers from two Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) research centres, the Adapt centre for AI-driven digital content technology and the centre for Research Training in Digitally Enhanced Reality (D-Real), have been looking into how workplace communication has changed since the pandemic.

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Their research acknowledged the importance of social talk or watercooler conversation as being key to workers’ wellbeing. It also provided recommendations as to how communication can be a feature of hybrid and remote workers’ lives.

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The researchers studied the impact of video conferencing and the findings were published in the Human-Computer Interaction journal.

Ten groups of English speakers were recruited from five research institutes in The Netherlands, Austria and Ireland. Observations were carried out on workers as they used video conferencing tools such as Zoom between August and September 2020.

Participants were asked to engage in a multi-party social conversational session with colleagues. After this, each participant completed a semi-structured interview reflecting on their remote social interactions with colleagues while working from home, as well as their experience in the study.

The study found that video conferencing influenced the dynamics and topics of workplace social conversations, as well as the role these conversations play in maintaining pre-existing relationships and forming new ones.

Lead author of the study and researcher at D-Real, Anna Bleakley, said the study provided some key guidelines on how to encourage social talk between colleagues when working remotely.

“Firstly we should try and follow in-person trends and make time to chat at the start and end of more formal meetings either in the form of a breakout session or in the virtual meeting room itself,” she said.

“Secondly, individuals need to accept that multitasking takes place. Thirdly, due to the online nature of video conferencing tools like Zoom, people can socially engage with others outside of their immediate team. Managers should support this by creating shared social opportunities or activities for individuals to engage with each other right across an organisation.”

Finally, Bleakley added that group size matters and can affect levels of social talk and the conversational experience.

“With large numbers of people on Zoom, it is harder to support the natural side-conversations we see in large in-person group chats as well as becoming much more difficult for people to find common ground on which to contribute to a conversation.”

According to Dr Benjamin Cowan from Adapt, the research “is an important first step in understanding how colleagues maintain collegial ties” while working remotely or in a hybrid model.

Communication over video conferencing channels can be more formal than in-person interactions, the researchers pointed out. They also found that video conferencing tends to lead to speakers interrupting each other less and a reduction in side conversations.

As many others have predicted, Cowan said that the post-pandemic workplace “will likely see a more hybrid approach to working and remote teams will be more commonplace”. With that in mind, he added that important interactions between colleagues should not be lost to remote working as informal watercooler chats can provide motivation to workers.

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Blathnaid O’Dea
By Blathnaid O’Dea

Blathnaid O’Dea joined Silicon Republic in 2021 as Careers reporter, coming from a background in the Humanities. She likes people, pranking, pictures of puffins – and apparently alliteration.

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