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Water cooler gossip has become a popular term during Covid, but what does it really mean and who does it benefit?
Last week at the Conservative Party conference Boris Johnson said a productive workforce “only comes with face-to-face meetings and water cooler gossip”. We’ve heard a lot about the ‘water cooler’ moments during the pandemic, those supposed times where we hang out and chat about important office stuff.
Speaking as someone who has never hung out around a water cooler, or even the tea and coffee machine, I find it an interesting concept that, like many, tends to be more about who is using it than what it is actually about.
If it means serendipitous chats with colleagues in corridors, in the lunch queue and so forth that is one thing, although, in my experience there are mainly about last night’s tv or something happening at home, but that can help to build trust, friendship and understanding of what is happening to a colleague outside of work. And, of course, face to face meetings also have an important function to fulfil, although many remote workers do meet people face to face on occasion and hybrid workers do it regularly.
But what exactly is ‘water cooler gossip’ and who does it benefit? An interesting study came out in the US last week. It found that Black workers in so-called “knowledge” roles are more likely to say they feel more valued and supported by management when working from home. The survey by the Future Forum of over 10,000 workers saw a 26 percentage point increase in Black respondents reporting “I am treated fairly at work” compared to a year ago, and similarly big increases in other questions about their work lives. One expert, Ella Washington, a management professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, told Bloomberg: “Going virtual levels the playing field . . . Because everything is virtual, there’s less of this informal chatter we had in person. So that’s going to make anybody feel more like they belong, especially folks that are not usually in those conversations.”
‘Water cooler gossip’ tends to exclude certain groups of people and those who have been on the receiving end of office politics know just how that feels. ‘Water cooler gossip’ may include the pub meet-ups after work about cricket or football or whatever, the things you don’t even know are going on that you are excluded from, the old boys’ network and so forth. I recall being told that one of my managers had been discussing the size of the women in the office’s breasts at one such meeting.
One of the positives of working from home is that you avoid some of the worst examples of office politics. However, that is not to say that office politics and bullying don’t still exist online – we know only too well about the dangers of work-based whatsapp groups, for example.
Moreover, if it is mainly particular groups who work from home, such as working mums, they will still end up being the butt of water cooler gossip rather than benefiting from it.
So how do we get to the point where working remotely all or part of the week is more open to all employees, without the kind of stigma that has loomed so large of late, despite the Covid ‘experiement’? I am referring to all the current bullying of people – particularly, I would think, men – around hybrid or remote working – the comments about getting off your peloton and back to the office [by a government minister], the implication that people who have been working remotely have essentially been twiddling their fingers, the labelling of hybrid workers as TWATs because they are in the office on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays? Well, for one it takes leadership – if not from politicians – who seem in many cases to be leading the bullying – then from employers. Otherwise we could end up with an even worse situation than existed before Covid, with more of a two-tier system operating at work and those working from home being ever more excluded.
It takes real effort to ensure people who work remotely are not excluded from important information and feel part of decision-making processes. First of all, it takes thinking that these things matter and not brushing them under the carpet because they don’t affect you. It takes wanting all of your employees to fulfil their potential, not just the usual suspects. But most of all it takes challenging ideas such as ‘water cooler gossip’ and understanding their place in reinforcing existing power structures.