A 25-year-old at a nonprofit group in Washington doesn’t know how she became the unofficial in-office therapist for her colleagues, but she has some hunches.
When the covid-19 pandemic sent her and millions of American workers home for nearly two years, those vent sessions abruptly stopped. Now that she’s back in the office two or three days a week, she’s found that thing chief executives tout as a reason to come back to headquarters — serendipity — is also nudging co-workers back into her office to blow off steam.
Yes, when workers are in the same physical space, their water cooler chats might plant the seeds of big ideas that never would’ve sprouted on Zoom. But the magic of informal communication can also mean the office gossip is flowing again. There are more opportunities to eavesdrop in the restroom as colleagues dish about who’s sleeping together. Coffee breaks where you might learn who’s an untrustworthy manager and who’s more likely to have your back. Happy hours where employees, loosened up by a beer or two, might lean in and share their salaries to see how their pay stacks up.
All of this informal information sharing isn’t just fun, experts say. It also helps workers form bonds, know whom to trust and whom they might want to avoid. Gossip often gets a bad rap, but researcher Elena Martinescu of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam says that such informal information-sharing can help foster group cooperation. “It helps us communicate and warn each other about things that we cannot directly observe," Martinescu said in an interview. “If a member of the group does something bad, someone will observe it and spread that information further, so that the group together can sort of control behavior of people who might misbehave.”
Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University, finds that gossip, in moderation, can be good for business. “You really want employees connected and feeling some sense of loyalty to the organization," Bloom says, adding that moderation is key — in the amount and the content. Bloom, who’s been studying telework for 20 years, says that he’s heard quite often from workers who love not being in the office precisely because it allows them to avoid any toxic gossip spreading through their workplace.
If an individual is the target of such gossip, “it’s very bad for you,” Martinescu adds. "You won’t have as many opportunities as someone who has a good reputation.”
If this 25-year-old nonprofit worker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for professional privacy, had a reputation for blabbing about what she hears in her office, those vent sessions would probably cease. Instead, her co-workers used their newfound proximity to bring up concerns that their colleagues might be violating the advocacy rules for nonprofit organizations. Without naming names, the 25-year-old confirmed their hunches. Armed with this knowledge, one of her co-workers recently asked their employer for lobbying training.
Also since the return to the office, the 25-year-old has been compiling an anonymous salary spreadsheet to help guide newer colleagues asking for raises. Someone isn’t going to divulge their salary unless there’s a foundation of trust, which is difficult to form in a fully remote environment. Jake Rosenfeld, a sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis, sees disclosing pay “as an expression of vulnerability ... and that just doesn’t happen overnight."
It’s easier to foster that kind of intimacy through in-person interactions, Rosenfeld says, “where you can read body language, you can ensure the person has your actual attention and isn’t staring at three other screens.” Indeed, the idea to start that spreadsheet sprang from an in-person conversation when three colleagues were hanging out in the office between meetings, the 25-year-old says. She’s since recruited about one-third of the office to contribute, and she’s planning to distribute it to lower-level employees so that they know what kind of raises to ask for. “That’s what two people did for me when I first started here,” she says.
At big companies where socializing is encouraged — maybe there’s a ping-pong table or an in-office coffee shop — workers find that gossip follows. A 26-year-old man who worked at Twitter before the pandemic and is now building a start-up used to have regularly scheduled meetings where he would gather in a conference room with other Black engineers to discuss whatever was on their minds. “A balancing of information asymmetry,” this engineer called the chats, which were occasionally strategic — about compensation or intraoffice maneuvering — and sometimes were just about projects in other departments that were getting canned. The 26-year-old, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, says he can’t imagine navigating a big tech company effectively without having others to corroborate his hunches, likening it to having friends double-check your schoolwork. Without such gab sessions, “I think it makes everything much harder,” he says.
“Having no goss in my life feels bland,” the 26-year-old says, though he doesn’t miss it as much as he does having a nice office to go to and close friends in the workplace. Now his gossip sessions consist of trading information with other start-up founders, he says, taking note of who’s raised funding from which venture capital firms.
Gossip also offers entertainment, something many remote workers have been missing over the past two years. “I don’t like to be the drama. I like to know the drama,” says a 28-year-old worker for a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C. She started at her current job while remote, and not knowing anyone in person made her feel more like a consultant than an integral team member. “It was difficult to connect with anybody,” she says, often wondering: “Who are the people around my age with similar experience?” She eventually found them, joined the text chains where everyone would talk about what was really going on at work. A big extrovert, she found the text chain to be serviceable but insufficient.
Now that her co-workers are back in person a few days a week, the juicy gossip isn’t about her organization but their new neighbors. Her employer downsized its office space since the pandemic and is sharing space with a new tenant — another nonprofit group with terrible reviews on Glassdoor, a website where employees can leave anonymous accounts of what it’s like to work at certain companies. She and her colleagues aren’t thrilled to be back in the office, she says, but “it was nice to have someone else’s suffering to focus on.”
Not all workers are a fan of office chatter. For example, a 42-year-old government contractor in Maryland dreads having to leave his quiet work-from-home cocoon where his only distractions are his two cats. If he had to return to cubicle-land, where the dividers between desks are short and flimsy, he worries he’d be unable to focus. Part of his job involves coding, which is difficult when co-workers are talking nearby or listening to music without headphones. Sure, he can ask his officemates to be quieter, but he suspects that his concerns would be ignored since he is a contractor and not a federal employee. “It’s not as bad as we’re second-class citizens, but it’s a perception that contractors don’t get to have quite as much of a say of what goes on,” this government contractor says.
When there’s too much gossip, it may be a sign of a problem. “A lot of gossip starts because people feel underappreciated, even taking advantage of, not listened to," says Kirk Snyder, chair of business communication at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. "My research has shown that employees care more about being listened to and being part of the process — being valued as part of the process — versus having things turn out the way they want.”
For a 23-year-old who works in a state tourism office, observing something potentially salacious at work has allowed her to feel more powerful. While one-on-one flirting over Slack with a colleague might be easy to keep from others, now that workers are going to conferences and in-person events again, it’s harder to hide the smiles, winks and the vibe two enamored people give off. The 23-year-old suspects her boss is having an affair — emotional or otherwise — with a client.
“Seeing all this mess,” she says of watching him flirt shamelessly in front of herself and other colleagues has made her realize “this is just another person” rather than an intimidating authority figure. As a result, she predicts she’ll be more confident the next time she asks for a raise: “I would probably be a little more direct and a little less afraid of him.”