COVID Casualty: Office Gossip

Nearly everyone dislikes “office politics.”  But does day-to-day employee gossip rise to that level?  And have we lost something actually beneficial in the wake of remote work limiting our in-person interactions?

Ever since we were children, most of us have been conditioned to regard gossiping as a negative trait that any caring person should avoid doing. 

At its core, the definition of the term is “people speaking evaluatively about someone who isn’t there.”  But gossip can also relate to talking about rumors and conjecture regarding topics that go beyond just people.

Historically, gossip or the rumor mill in the office often served as a means by which anodyne-sounding corporate announcements would be subjected to a healthy degree of “whispered conversation and conjecture.”  Or, as one DC-area employee put it in a recent Wall Street Journal article, ”You hear the surface story, and then you learn what the real story was – and that’s the gossip.”

In the months since mandatory office workplace lockdowns have been imposed, the gossip mill has fallen on hard times.  Instead of serendipitous conversations happening in the lunchroom, in hallways or following group meetings, many workers are spending their days with just one person – themselves.  Or they might be interfacing via Zoom meetings with the same handful of people from their core work team, where it’s always the same information being recycled among the same group of people.

Even for employees who have returned to working at their corporate offices, hybrid schedules often mean that there are far fewer daily interactions happening with other employees.

On one level, the reduction in gossiping may be reducing workplace “drama” and helping people focus better on their actual work tasks.  Although the evidence is murky, productivity studies do appear to show an uptick in employee productivity since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On the other hand, in a recent survey of ~500 employees and business owners conducted by international legal consulting firm Seyfarth Shaw, the item that respondents missed the most after a year of remote working was “in-person and grown-up workplace conversations.”

For senior leadership, office gossip has been one way to rely on a kind of “early-warning system” about corporate initiatives or directives.  In every office there seem to be a few people who have the pulse of the organization – it might be an executive assistant or some other staff support functionary – who other people feel comfortable confiding in and who in turn can communicate “the upshot” to the top brass.  While difficult to quantify, that sort of dynamic really counts for something.

Of course, human nature being what it is, office gossip is never going to go away completely.  But Skype or Zoom calls feel forced, and typing out thoughts or conjecture on IMs or e-mails is borderline-weird and feels inherently risky.  

On balance, do you welcome the decline of face-to-face “gossip conversations” with colleagues — or do you suspect that a useful guerilla communications conduit has been lost?  Please share your perspectives with other readers.

One thought on “COVID Casualty: Office Gossip

  1. Gossip is the human pleasure of the work world …

    … and it performs a familial service. It makes one a participant in something larger than oneself. It plays to our need to know what is happening — or about to happen — behind the facades of officialdom. It allows us to adjust to change. It dispels loneliness.

    But gossip is also a byproduct of fear.

    As a member of the human herd, we experience normal paranoia. Is that a lion in the bushes waiting to attack? Or is it just a breeze riffling the leaves? Is the sudden silence dangerous? That’s half of what gossip is about.

    In the business world, when things go silent, you are usually in trouble. The pandemic has created a new kind of silence — and hence new kinds of fear. It has cut us off from the normal buzz of life. Not only can we no longer speak to people; when they appear before us, they no longer have faces …

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