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Any plans for the weekend then?

So will the efficiency of Zoom be the kiss of death for informal office small talk? Hopefully not, if organisations value that sort of staff interaction and find creative ways to make space for it.

Returning to work after maternity can be stressful.  Going back to work, in a new job, at a different company, during a pandemic, is a very weird experience indeed. Nearly a month ago, that is exactly what I did. I handed the babies over to my husband. Changed to my ‘new normal’ work attire (business up front, party under the desk) and commuted upstairs.

Back in February, planning my new start, I was adamant that I did not want to work from home. I needed to be present and a presence in the office. As my start date approached, it became clear that was not to be.  I started to panic. Informal office chats are how I navigate the social niceties of the workplace. It’s how I build relationships. How would I fare if every interaction, even the small talk, had to be done online?

When I logged on to meet my new colleagues, it was a relief to find a host of spaces had been created for some virtual water cooler moments.  I marvelled how much the world of work had moved on. But, speaking to friends in other organisations, it’s clear that some places haven’t been as successful at maintaining those ad-hoc conversations that make so many places tick.

…some places haven’t been as successful at maintaining those ad-hoc conversations that make so many places tick.

So, as digital engagement experts, what is Kaleidoscope doing to enable good old-fashioned pleasantries in an online office?

Open and informal daily check-ins

We have two 15 minute video meeting slots each day. Everyone is invited and it isn’t mandatory at all.

I think these sessions matter because they are inclusive and it is a clearly delineated space. Everyone who is there has chosen to join in. Even if you get into the meeting and see someone you’ve not met before, you know how it works and it’s only 15 minutes.

Yes, it’s scheduled and some people (me included) loathe the idea of ORGANISED FUN. But, in digital scenarios it is even more important to understand and respect limits. It works because of the discipline, so we choose a Chairperson to enforce that.  In the mornings the Chair is the person who had the nicest breakfast, in the afternoon it is the person who has the most exciting evening plans.  It might sound a bit ridiculous but we need social lubricant, a conversation starter. What you ate that morning is pretty universal, even if you were fasting and breakfast was five hours ago, it gets the ball rolling.

Digital lunches 

At the office I was always a bit of an ‘al desco’ diner. But now at Kaleidoscope we have a scheduled weekly lunch drop in where we can scatter crumbs onto our keyboards together. It has similar benefits to the daily check-in, but I like these because of the element of danger. Will someone spill soup on their Macbook?  Did someone’s flatmate put fish in the microwave? Will the dishwasher battles ever end?  Sometimes it is the little things…

Work drinks

Between pregnancies and child rearing responsibilities, it’s been a long time since I went for half a mild after work, probably around 2015. Now it feels like it might be another five years before I get to go again.  Yet I do get to see the lightly toasted version of the office.  Once a week we host Desert Island Discs, where one brave Kscoper will share their musical passions. The best bit is that it’s at the end of the day, and is laid back enough that my 4 year old can watch too.

I have heard of some other creative ways to keep informal work chats going. WhatsApp groups are great, but a Zoom kitchen, where you join every time you head to your own kitchen and make coffee together, provides the sort of unplanned ordinariness that was a cornerstone of office life.

These things might seem silly. I can see how out of context they might read a little left-field. But I’m not just a face in a box on Zoom, I want opportunities to get to know people in the other boxes too. We’re not going to be rushing back to offices any time soon, so having these optional firebreaks in the day has made my working life considerably more human and connected.

Charmian Walker-Smith22 May 2020


  • Nikki Davey
    2 years ago

    Hi Chamian and thankyou for sharing insights via this blog! Fresh eyes are precious gifts.
    I can imagine just a little bit of wgat you are experiencing as I meet our learners in our online space before I meet them face to face- and of course the latter doesn’t happen at all now.
    It sounds like you’ve used all the creative opportunities available to you really well!

    Now our improvement programmes are completely virtual we send goody bags to our learners to try and create something of the atmosphere we have face to face.
    I was sparked into action by a chance when a participant said they’d miss the promised buns and fruit! So we send a few little snacks and drinks sachets together with name badges and stickers to decorate (it’s a course for paediatricians, parents and other healthcare professionals!) And work resources we’d usually use in the sessions.

    We spend time checking in very informally and have some down time too during the micro-sessions.
    We’ve had to be really creative in the way we run learning games too!
    It seems to be working as feedback is really positive and progress as good as ever.
    You’re right that many organisations are really not encouraging this type of thing – so I hope your blog will encourage small teams to give it a go without waiting for permission!

    • Charmian Walker-Smith
      2 years ago

      Nikki – thank you so much for your comment. I really love your ideas – buns and fruit are such a thoughtful way to connect with people. Especially now, it gives the shared experience a whole extra dimension and a delicious one at that!

  • Tara Galloway
    2 years ago

    Desert island discs. Love it.going to try that one!

    • Charmian Walker-Smith
      2 years ago

      Thank you so much @Tara – Hope you had fun!

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