The corona virus has everybody working from home. And it seems all of management is recommending to 'stay in contact', to talk with each other digitally. Which may be fun, when it's actually planned and doesn't interrupt work. In this case, my team has already lengthened our daily standup to allow for a 'coffee break' as well, so there's a set moment for small talk.
I'm stuck with several co-workers that seem to think 7:23AM or 11:17AM is a perfect time to start chatting. About the weather, weekend plans, about how their kids are ruining their productivity, the problems at home... Basically, your standard group/one-on-one lunch conversations, random and not about work. And because there's several coworkers doing this on any given day, the stream of these pings is continuous, at random times during the day, that don't allow for long spans of concentrated working like the office usually would.
Usually, when at the office, I'd decline random chatter at the coffee machine with an 'I'm sorry, I'm quite busy', and I can let coworkers know I'm not available for small talk by wearing headphones and focusing on my work. That works, and limits small talk and non-work related chatter to lunch breaks or moments (like the few minutes it takes for everyone to arrive at/disperse after a meeting) very well.
I've found these tactics don't work well when working from home and communicating digitally. Especially not when the general expectation seems to be that 'the guidance says we should all make some effort to stay connected, so random small chat during work hours is perfectly acceptable'. I must admit I fell for this in the first few weeks too, when these types of conversations were limited to one coworker, maybe once every other day. But as time progresses, it seems to escalate and get out of hand, I can't have three non-work related chats a day on top of the work-related ones and concentrate enough to get work done.
A chat will typically open with a 'hello' or 'good afternoon'. I've tried waiting out to see what follows, or immediately ask them 'hey, what's up?'. But it doesn't help to distinguish between small talk or work. I've dropped several people a link to no-hello, explaining that it would help me to know why I'm contacted and supposed to drop work to chat with them, but so far people don't seem to implement it, not even after reminders.
I've walked away from conversations as soon as they became small talk with 'I'm sorry, I need to work', or just ignoring it if the next message was 'how are you'. It has people continue writing messages at me, or they're pinging again at 13:55PM/15:48PM to ask for a reply or with other small talk.
I've gently explained that I people are the third person to interrupt this afternoon with non-work related things, and I can't talk with everyone and still get work done. I've reminded people of our dedicated small talk time, and that the conversation they're trying to have is not suited to have outside of those times. I've tried to reinforce that I still like them by pointing out we can talk about X during small talk time or when we're back at the office having lunch together.
I've already had people point out that 'the guidance says we should make time for small talk and staying connected' and that rebuffing these kinds of conversations is perceived as rather cold and rude, so I'm hesitant to again walk away or not reply. I'm hesitant to decline a conversation again with 'Sorry, this isn't about work, I need to get my work done, we can at dedicated small talk time' as people seem to have different expectations and have expressed their discontent with my rebuffing.
So, this question is two-fold: How do I gently cut small talk attempts outside of our planned daily moment short in a way that also manages my coworkers expectations so that they won't try again?
More technical solutions like turning off the chat clients aren't an option, my team lead wants me to be available on chat clients in case of work related things happening. The same goes for putting it on 'occupied' or 'absent' for the whole day, people start ignoring it because if it's there the whole day, it can't be true, you've probably forgotten to change your status.