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How does hybrid working affect communication?

Posted on 3rd November 2021

Is gossip good? Professor Jack Levin, author of ‘Gossip: The Inside Scoop’, thinks so. Workplace chit-chat connects business and social networks and can even improve productivity.

But Dr. Jan Smith, a psychologist specialising in workplace mental health, warns that in the new hybrid work culture, we could lose our small-talk skills – and with them a vital opportunity to show interest in our colleagues and build strong relationships at work.

“It fills the silences between conversations and connects us,” she says. “Opportunities for these exchanges can happen organically when making coffee or collecting something from the printer.”

Employers shouldn’t underestimate how much informal chats boost morale and engagement. While it might not directly impact your bottom line, it will do indirectly. It’s also an important way to include new starters and help them feel part of the team. The awkwardness of online communication means this kind of bonding can be hard to replicate over Zoom.

But Dr Sam Mather, author of ‘Rise Together: A leader’s guide to the science behind creating innovative, engaged and resilient employees’ says our brains are hard-wired to create connections with people – so gossip is a basic survival instinct, whether in person or online.

“We do not like to feel excluded or disliked by others. When we are, our brain assumes this to be a threat to our safety and triggers a stress response... Gossip is positive when it includes us as part of a group because we feel safe and less stressed. Of course, if you are the subject of gossip then it is not so good for your mental health or well-being.”

Speaking of which, online gossip can cause unexpected trouble for both workers and employees if someone breaches confidentiality or otherwise says something they shouldn’t.

“With hybrid working, gossip has moved from the water cooler to exchanging messages on Teams, WhatsApp or other internal communication systems,” says lawyer Kate Benefer. “The technology means there is a written record of what has been said, which makes it easier for employers to take disciplinary action if the gossip comes to their attention.”