Meetings get a bad rap, and chitchat is one of the biggest reasons why. It often comes with the adjective "idle" or "aimless" in front of it, and the assumption is that it's a time waster. That makes some sense: Shouldn’t we be using every minute of our time to be productive?
But that may not be the case. Most of the internal meetings at my company start with five to 10 minutes of socializing. This isn't a formal policy, it’s just the way it goes. But since we're an ad agency, we also have tons of meetings run by clients—and many of them don't have this. On average, we find that we get more done in ours—and are vastly less bored.
Of course, that’s simply anecdotal evidence. But the research seems to back it up. Here's a look at four reasons why chitchat might not be the meeting killer we tend to think it is.
Humans are social animals, so it's no surprise that chitchat has been shown to make people happier. And happier employees have in turn been proven to be up to 12% more productive than average—with unhappy workers about 10% less so. Call it the power of positive emotions: Our brains actually function better when we’re happier. So even if you’re losing five minutes for every hour of meeting time, the domino effect in terms of happiness and productivity might be worth it.
By its very name, "small talk" sounds frivolous and superficial. But research has shown that modern workers are less likely to have friends at work, even though those relationships are critical to our happiness. Yet it's these quick, common interactions that lay the foundation for friendship at work. Without them, it's all business.
Many companies tend to discourage pre-meeting chatter in the name of productivity. After all, if you’re sitting around the water cooler, you’re probably not sitting at your desk and getting things done. The problem with this is that it assumes that every minute a person is at their desk, they’re equally productive.
But much the same principle by which happier employees are more productive governs work relationships too: Companies where people make friends are likewise more productive than those where they don't. "Aimless" chitchat brings us together and helps us work more efficiently when we are on task.
Companies keen on keeping meetings short and efficient try to leap right into the agenda and cut out the small talk. But we have ample scientific evidence that taking short breaks greatly improves focus, while trying to work continuously causes sharp declines in performance.
In other words, if the first few minutes of a meeting doesn't leave room for a quick break, workers will find their own ways to take it. Taking your mind off the task at hand, even briefly, can make you more effective when you return. So why not actually build that into your meeting structure?
Teams work better when they’re actually teams, not merely collections of individuals with their own agendas. Chatting breaks down barriers and helps you get to know people and understand what matters to them. It shows you their personalities, working styles, and the sorts of things they like and dislike. Later, when the really critical and important conversations have to take place, you’re all much better at communicating honestly and efficiently.
Of course, chatting is only one part of a productive meeting. Five minutes is a good limit, 10 at most. Then it's time to get things done. Once you’re done with the small talk, know what you want to achieve—and achieve it.
The truth, though, is that we're easily seduced by the promise of ever greater productivity. Many of us find meetings a drag and wish they were shorter, fewer, and less boring. But trying to realize those wishes might be counterproductive. We should be wary of simple formulas that equate time spent with productivity. It isn't about keeping everyone’s nose to the grindstone all the time. It's okay—and even beneficial—every now and then to lift your head and just chat.
As president of POSSIBLE Americas, Jason Burby is responsible for leading the long-term stability and growth of the region. With over 20 years of experience in digital strategy, he is a longtime advocate of using data to inform digital strategies to help clients attract, convert, and retain customers.