Beyond the Weather: How Safe-for-Work Topics Feed Company Culture
In today’s workplaces, you might be leery of bringing up any not-work related topics for risk of offending a colleague. Our society is changing rapidly, and the norms of socially acceptable behavior are changing rapidly as well. But the secret to cultivating a welcoming, inclusive, and supportive workplace culture is not clamming up and avoiding anything personal. Instead, you need to find those safe-for-work topics that allow for employee connection and lean heavily into them.
Why employee connection is so critical
Even before the pandemic, research showed a high percentage of employees were flat-out lonely. A Cigna study released in early 2020 (as in, data collected pre-COVID-19) found that 62 percent of U.S. workers could be considered lonely, which translated into more than 97 million workers. A lonely worker can cost their employer nearly $4,200 a year in lost work—which, at the 97 million worker estimate, adds up to more than $406 billion.
Post-pandemic, the number of employees who report feeling “engaged” is still less than the majority. A 2022 Gallup report found that only one-third of U.S. and Canadian employees said they feel engaged at work.
But there are solutions. The 2019 EY Belonging Barometer 2.0 workplace study found that 39 percent of respondents experienced the highest sense of “belonging” at work when their colleagues “checked in” with them both personally and professionally. In terms of fostering a sense of belonging, check-ins were rated highest among Millennials, Gen Xers, and Baby Boomers, over receiving feedback, public recognition, off-site events, and attending meetings with leadership.
Work-friendly conversation starters
Those statistics make a strong case for connecting with colleagues on a “professionally personal” level. To foster belonging, you need to stockpile work-appropriate conversation starters that allow for connection but aren’t overly personal or intrusive. Here are some safe topics:
- The weekend. What do you have planned for the weekend, or what were you up to this past weekend? A coworker can always keep the answer vague, and most of us have a list of “life stuff” that is always safe to discuss (running errands, seeing movies, attending sporting events, etc.).
- Popular culture and sports. Catch the Commanders game this weekend? Have you heard the new Harry Styles album yet? If you stay away from the intersection of politics and pop culture or sports, you should be safe.
- Summer and holiday travel plans. It’s generally safe to ask your colleagues if they have any upcoming trips in the works. This also leads to the work-appropriate topics of the hassle of airplane travel or weather delays. (You might want to stay away from your theory on the source of high gas prices.)
- Restaurant recommendations. Where do you like to grab lunch around here, or what’s your favorite place to grab a cup of coffee? Have you tried the Thursday special? Who knows—you might end up with a new lunch buddy.
- Pets. Those of us with furry family members typically like to talk about them. “Do you have any pets?” is a good opening line, opening the floodgates to tales of the dog’s amazing rescue story or the cat’s video-worthy antics.
- Where they’ve worked before. There’s a reason so many classic TV shows are workplace-based. Workplaces bring together a cast of oddball characters striving (sometimes begrudgingly) for the same goal. Asking where someone worked before and what their role entailed is fertile ground for conversation.
Topics to avoid at work
If you want to keep yourself out of trouble—and on the path toward an inclusive work environment—avoid talking about topics such as politics, religion, health issues, and sex and dating. It’s also a good idea to keep your humor in the “dad joke” genre.
Connecting with coworkers in the modern workplace might seem complicated, but if you need further convincing of its worth, consider this: The Gallup poll also estimated the average person’s lifetime includes 81,396 hours spent at work. Divided by 24-hour days, that’s more than nine full years of your life. You might as well enjoy it.