If you entered the workforce in the 60’s through the 90’s you’d get this. The water cooler dispenser. It was where, apparently, employees exchanged gossip in the pre-digital era and into the early 2000’s. When email really came into being, it somewhat replaced the water cooler. Mostly with very bad and often innapropriate, jokes. In one company I worked at during the early 00’s, two co-workers expressed their undying love via a corporate wide email message…having unintentionally hit “Reply-All.” Workplace romances were not encouraged. One of them soon left the company.

Office politics have existed since, well, we’ve had offices. Some companies and management profess to have no tolerance for such non-work activities. They’re discouraged through memo’s, speeches, emails and HR policies. They happen anyway. The only reason a company makes such announcements today is to limit liabilities later when lawsuits fly. Stopping office politics is like trying to convince mosquito’s that you don’t give out free samples. It just doesn’t work.

In the digital age and especially as we move into a new workplace dynamic post-pandemic, office politics continues and will forevermore, but where they happen has shifted a great deal. And it is likely they will get more complex in the coming years as we enter a time where there will be a mix of in-office work, work-from-home and variations in between. The common thread will be communications tools from email to Slack, Monday, Teams and others.

In four ethnographic studies we conducted with small and medium sized businesses, one of our questions was around how interpersonal communications took place in the workplace. This represents a sample size of over 1,700 employees, so it’s a reasonable size to see an emergent and consistent pattern. While email was the primary communications tool across all organisations, it wasn’t the main tool for “gossip” if you will. We found a mix of tools used. From text and message groups to apps like Slack, Monday and Teams.

What was interesting is that most employees felt that email was more of a formal communications channel and that the management could easily pry on emails and that gossip in email was more risky. We found that there tended to be use of company provided apps and tools alongside private messaging groups like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and similar tools.

Digital Gossip Group Behaviours and Formations

Social groups always form within organisations the same as they do in school. These may within a department or cross-departmental. Workers will often be in 2-4 groups within an organisation. All tended to have a smaller inner circle with whom they communicated with more trust. For these groups, non-work apps and tools are used, usually a mobile device with a private text group, or a private group within Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Telegram or whatever is the most popular tool within an organisation. Employees typically feel that these are more private and can’t be accessed by management or easily accessed by peers within an organisation.

Our studies revealed that the way gossip is spread and discussed has adapted to the capabilities of the tools used. Memes may be created around events that took place within the company, code names and nicknames are assigned and used mostly as a precaution , .gif‘s are popular and short video clips. It is not uncommon for them to be deleted fairly quickly. Groups morph and change over time and as employees move about an organisation or leave. These gossip groups tend to last several months to a few years but adapt over time, but that is based on commentary by employees and difficult at best, if not impossible, to truly validate.

For management, getting access to these groups is both an ethical and legal challenge. And probably one better left alone unless it becomes an obvious case of racism, sexual harassment or workplace bullying, which has happened and should of course, be addressed. For benign, general office gossip though, this is the new water cooler.

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