How to navigate the new era of office gossip

Gossip has been part of work culture since, well, forever. Yes, some of it can feel trivial and like it’s none of your business, but other times it can be a valid coping mechanism and an opportunity to bond with colleagues. It is, indisputably, a part of human nature. But how has gossip changed in the hybrid era? And what are the perks, pitfalls, and strategies for navigating this new landscape?

Workplace gossip: Is it a good thing?

Well, it all depends on what, and who, you are gossiping about, but there is evidence to suggest that there are some benefits to a bit of chatter by the photocopier. Fortune magazine argues that gossip can be a method of gaining some control when you feel like you have none. It can also help to build close relationships and cause the release of the feel-good chemical dopamine. “You’re suddenly in on something that supposedly not everyone’s in on. You become part of that inner circle,” Dr Scott Lyons tells Fortune. “You feel special. You feel like you matter.”

It can also be a sign that people find you trustworthy, and conversely, if you chose to share a juicy bit of info with someone else, then you obviously trust them too. “Gossip is a bonding mechanism,” says social psychologist Francis McAndrew in this Fashion Journal article. “If you cut yourself out of the gossip network, you are saying to your co-workers that you do not trust them and do not want to be part of their network.”

Of course, there is a point where gossip moves beyond simple chatter and becomes unpleasant, and no one is advocating that. Avoid the salacious stuff and don’t pass off rumours as fact. Also, as this SHRM article points out, “workplace gossip can be very serious if the gossiper has significant power over the recipient”.

How has gossip changed?

Now that so many businesses have gone hybrid there are fewer opportunities for hushed conversations, but many people are still craving moments of personal connection. Some of the “watercooler whisperings” have been digitised according to the BBC, and while that might satisfy some of those basic communication needs, it has introduced a few more pitfalls. As Ronald Placone, a business expert from Carnegie Mellon University says, “a message can be easily forwarded, misinterpreted and seen by unintended audiences.”

Surveillance technology is becoming increasingly sophisticated, tracking things like keystrokes or message history, and while many companies simply go for the ‘basic trust’ method of management, consulting firm Gartner suggests that 70% of large US employers will use monitoring tools within the next two years. Gossip isn’t throwaway anymore; in fact, it leaves a perfect trail back to source.

These dangers can be avoided with a hybrid working model. When team members have the opportunity to meet, collaborate and even enjoy a gossip with colleagues, just once or twice a week for example, they can vent face-to-face, without having to put anything in writing. Plus, that extra distance that hybrid creates means that working relationships are a little less intense, and so maybe there is less to gossip about.

Advice for business leaders

As an employer you need to accept that some form of gossip will always be part of work. Rumours spread, it’s the whole point of them, so if an interesting titbit comes your way about the business and you are able to shed some light on it, then do so, be open. It is important to set clear boundaries though. The personal stuff should stay off the table, and try to encourage a positive work culture to prevent the gossip from becoming damaging.

Office gossip, by any other name, sounds like perfectly acceptable behaviour. We could call it ‘work chat’, or even ‘networking’. Employees can often feel like the management knows more than them (and they generally do), so it’s important to give them opportunities to wonder or speculate. Hybrid work arrangements that make it easy for workers to meet and work together locally can help facilitate that, and in turn reduce miscommunication and potential misunderstandings.

Find out how Spaces membership can help to build a great working relationship for your team.

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