Staff in workplaces the world over can often find themselves falling into a routine at work, with everyday tasks only broken up by office gossip around the water cooler. However, far from reducing productivity, recent research has proven that the benefits of casual chatter can improve output and put staff in a more positive mind set about their jobs.
Dutch researcher Dr Lea Ellwardt studied so called “watercooler chat”, finding that a balance between social time and concentration during the working day can have a hugely positive effect upon employee morale. The periods of intermittent chatter help to boost the confidence of office staff in three ways; by strengthening workplace friendships, increasing co-operation between colleagues and even going a long way towards regulating unprofessional behaviour.
However, for people who fail to find a balance between work and play – neglecting their work in favour of constantly talking – the opposite can be true. Many end up being labelled as the office gossip and, in the long run, have fewer friends in the workplace as a result.
Dr Ellwardt, who is based at the Dutch University of Groningen, spent a year questioning a number of employees about their office gossiping habits. She asked participants to record how much time they spent gossiping with colleagues, and also to state what they had been talking about.
Much of the study comes from a Dutch healthcare centre, with staff regularly interviewed about their day to day life. Dr Ellwardt was particularly interested in the role gossip plays in creating or affecting friendships.
She said; “I was especially interested in relationships of trust between employees and the quality of their social and formal relationships, particularly because you usually can’t choose whom you work with.”
While many employees choose to talk about television shows or events going on in their own lives, Dr Ellwardt chose to focus instead upon the role gossip, defined as “talking, either positively or negatively, about someone who is not present at that moment.”
She found that co-workers with only passing knowledge of each other would happily indulge in a spot of gossiping – but only if they were speaking positively about their colleague. Positive gossip, being less sensitive, does not tend to have a hugely negative effect if found out, which is why the negative gossip was reserved only for colleagues the participants knew well and trusted.
Dr Ellwardt explains; “Spreading negative gossip about someone does entail an element of risk.
“It is important that the gossip can trust the person receiving the information to handle the information discreetly and not to spread it further.”
Perhaps this explains the next piece of information discovered in the study. While participants who talked too much failed to become popular as a general rule, those who gossiped a normal amount with a large variety of people tended to receive the same treatment at the hands of their colleagues. This is because they became thought of as “untrustworthy”, putting a barrier between themselves and any close friendships that could have formed in the workplace over time.
As for the bosses? Bad news, it seems – no matter how popular you become with your staff, positive gossip tends to be something missing. While unpopular bosses were often gossiped about in a negative way, the reverse did not seem to be true for popular bosses. Researchers saw no increase in positive gossip for those with an excellent rapport with their staff.
Are you guilty of indulging in the odd piece of gossip around the office water cooler, and if so do you tend to gossip positively or negatively? Do you agree that gossip helps form friendships and improve employee morale, or do you think it is a better idea to stick to an analysis of the previous night’s television shows?
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