Returning to the office has been a big adjustment for many of us – and not just because of the commute. According to research by , it is also giving people anxiety about having to make office small talk again.
In fact, 57% of young people aged between 18 and 34 said their ability to make conversation in the office has diminished because of the pandemic. An even higher percentage – 84% – admitted they felt “out of practice” when it comes to office life, with many saying it has negatively affected their work and social skills.
While small talk might not seem important, it’s actually a key soft skill that can help us build meaningful work relationships. This can help us advance in their careers, particularly if we use it to network. So what can we do to boost our social skills again?
“Let’s face it, at the start of lockdown, being at home and working from the kitchen table was a bit of a novelty and something many people thought would be for the short term,” says Life Coach Directory member .
“Going back to those watercooler conversations can be hard. Maybe you are naturally an introvert and happy not to make small talk, or just want to get on with work and get home again,” she adds. “There is no right or wrong here, but given the challenging times we have had and the chaos we’ve navigated, going back to how it was could take a while.”
“If we are catching up with friends that we haven’t seen for a long time, it’s likely that we will have spoken or texted, or followed the happenings in their lives on social media. With colleagues, we have a different relationship,” she says.
“Lockdown has been hard for many people and there are those who have lost loved ones or who have struggled with their health. There may be some fear that we will not immediately find common ground to make small talk with colleagues, and we may worry about what to say in case we inadvertently cause distress.”
In general, we’re also out of the habit of communicating with personal interaction. “Being with someone is different to communicating by email. There are many reasons, and all are very individualised,” she adds.
How to improve your office small talk skills
Take it slow
“I think you simply need to take this at your own pace. No one says you’ve got to be the head of the social committee or be visible in the pub after work, but being back in the office and chatting with colleagues could ease you back into reality,” says Trice.
“Maybe have a couple of things ready to talk about, look out for someone you’ve missed or if there’s a new starter, show them around and make them feel welcome.”
Avoid difficult conversations
The pandemic has also meant we’re having different – and often difficult – conversations. Stress levels are still high for many people, who have struggled with their mental health, work changes, childcare, illness and other problems for the past 18 months. Keeping conversations light can make chit-chat a little easier.
“People are still feeling pretty emotional and tensions can be high, so keep things casual and avoid discussions that could get heated. For example, whether to jab or not to jab,” Trice advises.
Remember everyone is still adjusting
COVID-19 has changed things for everyone, albeit in different ways. “Accept that there will be anxieties, and not just your own,” says Blackman. “Your colleagues may well be feeling awkward too. Smile and make eye contact. Ask about neutral, inconsequential stuff, like their journey in, or the weather – and be interested in them.”
It can also help to focus on physically relaxing. “You’re just out of the habit of making small talk with colleagues, and be confident that it will come back as we adapt to our new state of being back in the office,” she adds.