Is the Decline of Office Gossip a Plus or Minus for Managers? It’s Complicated

By Brian O’Connell June 2, 2021
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Is the Decline of Office Gossip a Plus or Minus for Managers? It’s Complicated

​The remote workplace, replete with Zoom meetings that leave little time for chit-chat, may be squashing the office gossip scene—and that could be a problem for information-hungry managers. 

According to a recent study of business owners and staffers by the Boston-based law firm Seyfarth Shaw, remote workers believe they're missing out on the key ingredient to office gossip—in-person engagement: 

  • 61 percent of respondents say they miss in-person workplace conversations. 
  • 42 percent say they miss the daily structure of showing up at a worksite. 
  • 40 percent say they miss lunches and happy hours with fellow staffers. 

Whether it's a matter of bumping into a colleague in the lobby or meeting up at the pub after work for a beer and some banter, personal information shared face-to-face has often dribbled back to managers' ears. 

That's not really the case in a remote-working environment. 

"It's tough to gossip when working remotely," said Perry Zheng, CEO at Cash Flow Portal, a real-estate software firm in Seattle. "Now, people are isolated and are focused on their daily tasks and routine. They don't have time for chatter. Unfortunately, tools like Zoom and Slack cannot replace in-person workplace conversation."

Harnessing Team Information in the Digital Age

Should managers try to unearth informal, but sometimes useful inside information in a remote world?

It's a fair question. Getting a pulse on team member insights can help when managing employees. How team members think about other staffers, the workplace culture, their future at the firm and, yes, even management can help managers lead and persuade staffers in an in-person as well as a remote-working environment.

"The only effective ways for managers to gain information is to ask employees directly through one-on-one talks or gathering feedback with anonymity," said Arno Markus, CEO at iCareerSolutions, a job search firm in New York City.

With gossip, a manager can uncover information that cannot be obtained through a regular talk with employees. That information can fuel better workplace insights if managers can gain access to what employees are really thinking.

"The information gathered can be used to improve work situations or solve issues or conflicts," Markus said.

Insider Information in a Remote-Working World

With workplace chatter harder to come by, managers need to get creative to tap into a team member's mindset. Use technology to gather feedback and encourage staffers to share information, informally and otherwise. 

"We've been working in a hybrid model for several years, with 44 percent of our employees working completely remote, while the rest have the flexibility to work in the office or work from home part time," said Kate Grimaldi, director of strategic talent management at Paylocity, a human resource technology company in Schaumburg, Ill. "Because of [that] … we've relied heavily on our own feedback tools that allow … constructive feedback from managers and peers."

"The pandemic only intensified the need for feedback and listening tools, as in-office banter is no longer a main source for employee feedback and reporting," Grimaldi said. "As more employees continue to be geographically dispersed, we've seen a switch to more tactical feedback strategies, like instant messaging capabilities." 

Paylocity has also turned to one-on-one interviews, surveys, town halls and Q&A sessions to formalize office chatter. 

"Anything that opens up employee dialogue and gives us a peek behind the curtain can lead to employees being a part of the decision-making process," Grimaldi said. "At Paylocity, for example, we use our own tool called Community, which functions like an internal social media [platform] for employees to share happy moments, ask questions directly for management to see and take surveys about return to work. It's an ideal space for them to own their voice and connect with their colleagues, both for work-related initiatives and for fun, relaxed conversation that helps them stay bonded." 

Try 'Straight Talk'

Managers can also take a direct approach to see what's really on a team member's mind.

Anish Godha, founder of Diamondere, a jewelry design company based in Palo Alto, Calif., advises managers to conduct an "employee pulse check" by asking some quick questions that combine "yes" and "no" responses with personalized, long-form but anonymous answers. "Ask employees to use a different account to remain anonymous or set up a questionnaire that doesn't require a name, number or e-mail," Godha said. "While truthful answers aren't guaranteed, anonymity can increase the likelihood of honesty." 

To gain more insight on what's on a staffer's mind, Godha also advises asking these questions:

  • Are you excited before coming to work?
  • If you decide to quit tomorrow, what reason would you give?
  • On a scale of 1-10, how happy are you coming to work each day?
  • Would you say managers are helpful?
  • Does this company help establish a healthy work/life balance?
  • Do you feel this workplace encourages healthy habits?
  • Are you compensated fairly?
  • Do you feel you're treated with respect by your employer and co-workers?
  • Are you comfortable voicing honest opinions about the business or people within it?
  • Would you recommend a friend, spouse or other relative work here?

"You could also create an open suggestion box for [ways] to improve the company," Godha added.

Be Accessible and Keep It Positive

The best way a manager can encourage workplace chatter? Have an open-door policy, even remotely.

"To get a pulse of your workspace, be available for your team whenever they message you on Slack, request a Zoom meeting or just want to chat with you about nonwork-related things," Zheng said. "Make sure to reply to all their messages. Use Slackbot to remind you about pending responses. Additionally, always thank them for their work, ask about their weekends and any personal matters that may impact their work."

Above all, keep communications positive and encourage staffers to share with one another and with management.

"Keep it fun and engaging," Zheng added. "Aim for the kind of gossip that positively affects team morale and promotes positive behavior."

Brian O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Bucks County, Pa. A former Wall Street trader, he is the author of the books CNBC Creating Wealth (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2001) and The Career Survival Guide (McGraw-Hill, 2004).

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