Ever since people started to work from home during Covid, bosses have been trying to figure out how to get people back into offices. Companies have thrown out big incentives to stir excitement about it, too: free food, corporate swag, welcome-back concerts and redesigned offices.
For Amir Henley, there’s another big perk of being back in-person: the return of office gossip.
“I am the CEO of office gossip,” the 23-year-old marketer jokes. Henley’s even gone viral on TikTok for his satire of clocking in just to dish on the latest workplace drama.
(For the record, the office gossip he takes part in is “all out of fun and love and a way to pass the time,” he says.)
Henley’s far from alone in seeing that the biggest upside to office work is the chance to spend time with colleagues in the flesh.
While remote work was a boon for flexibility, it hasn’t been the easiest on our social connections. Since the start of the pandemic, people say the biggest challenges to remote work are feeling less connected to their organization’s culture, decreased teamwork and impaired working relationships with colleagues, according to Gallup research.
Meanwhile, when given the chance to work onsite in a hybrid arrangement, 59% say their priority is to meet with coworkers. By comparison, 39% say their biggest focus for office time getting face time with their boss.
All that in-person time seeing some of the unspoken rules of the workplace in action, and ample opportunity for exchanging knowing glances with coworkers IRL, make the office a breeding ground for gossip.
To be clear, gossip that falls into the territory of bullying or harassment is categorically bad, notes Elena Martinescu, a gossip researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. But in a number of ways, gossip can really benefit workers. It can help people bond, get ahead at work, learn to navigate office politics and even, just maybe, be the thing that saves company culture.
First, a little context: Gossip is a general umbrella term that involves a conversation where you and another person talk about a third party who isn’t present, Martinescu says.
It can be positive or negative, related to a task or completely random, but does play in the realm of exclusivity and is “something about a person that we find interesting and potentially relevant.”
Whatever form it takes, gossip is an important fundamental human behavior and important for social bonding, Martinescu says.
For example, if you share an opinion about the absent party, and the other person agrees or has another perspective to add, you automatically have something in common to talk about. Gossip works best when you and your partner have a shared mindset about your goal, like having fun (as opposed to, say, digging up dirt to drag someone through the mud).
All of this is to say, office gossip can fast-track work friendships, which eroded for a lot of people during the pandemic, says Ben Wigert, senior workplace analyst at Gallup.
“We’re seeing a significant drop in people saying they have strong relationships at work, and at the same time, relationships have become more important than ever,” he says. People without strong relationships at work are more likely to be disengaged, be less productive, feel disconnected from their company culture and, ultimately, leave their job.
Having friends at work just might be the key to happiness in life, according to data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz.
That’s because work is considered the second-most miserable of all activities (second only to being stuck sick in bed). But not everyone can simply stop working, he said in an interview with Vox, so his read of the data is that “the number one factor that increases your happiness while you’re working is liking the people you’re working with. It just blows everything out of the water.”
Beyond helping people find common ground, gossip in a workplace can be super functional, Martinescu says: It can help you make sure you’re on the same page with coworkers on a shared goal, and figure out how to work with different (maybe even clashing) personality types.
Gossip can tell you who to work with and who to avoid, or who you can trust and who to keep at a distance.
Another important function, Martinescu adds: sharing information that helps you understand your social environment. What are the norms? What are the punishments if you break the norms? In other words, what are all the unwritten rules of the workplace that you need to know in order to get ahead?
Henley likes to see the potential for gossip as a force for good. You can use gossip to share positive things about a coworker (“Did you know today is Sam’s three-year anniversary?”), or to change their negative perception of another (“I know you two had challenges working on quarterly reports, but Blake had great things to say about your commitment and ability to work under pressure.”).
Gossiping about work-related challenges might lead to some good problem-solving, Henley adds. And if anything, a vent session might be what you need to let off some steam, joke around about quitting, and remember that you at least have your work friend to keep you sane if you do decide to stick around.
In some ways, in-person interactions help decipher, if not level, some power dynamics in the workplace.
“I do think there is some benefit to interacting with management in person in order to see what they don’t want you to see, like how you treat the people around you, or how you talk about your wife,” says Kelsey McKinney, host of Defector Media’s podcast “Normal Gossip.” “Those kinds of things are difficult to pick up on in a work Slack. There’s definitely revealing characteristics that happen in casual conversations that become office gossip immediately.”
It can be especially beneficial to those who don’t traditionally hold positions of power in a workplace: women, people of color, junior employees.
“Normal Gossip” producer Alex Sujong Laughlin recalls a group of older women who supported her at the beginning of her audio career. “They told me who to avoid, who not to be in a room alone with, a lot of these open secrets that ultimately ended up coming out around #MeToo that was helpful for me in learning how to navigate the industry,” she says.
Then, there’s the whisper network about corporate actions that can spark a labor movement, Laughlin says — conversations about how much people are getting paid, or corporate’s latest plans to lay off employees.
“Gossip is ultimately a tool of people who are not in management,” McKinney says. “People who are not in charge being able to talk to each other to form alliances, be those union-based or just sharing your salary with each other, is a very powerful form of gossip that can get you things that you deserve, and get you information that allows you to negotiate for those things better.”
So how should bosses really be thinking about what workers want most from the office?
If they’re not ready to see gossip as a potentially good byproduct of the workplace (or at least an inevitable one), they should at least understand employees’ desire for social connection as part of the work itself, Martinescu says.
That might look like introducing social events with the sole purpose of not talking about work, and they should be part of the workday rather than something tacked on outside of office hours.
“If you work 9 to 5, and then you have a social event with your colleagues until 6 or 7, people are probably going to be reluctant to participate in that,” Martinescu says. “But if you do that during the work hours, and pay for it from in company time and money, then people might be more inclined to participate.”
This continues to be essential for remote and hybrid workers, so managers should find ways to hold intentional pockets of no-objective social time through digital means, too, Wigert says.
One final thing Martinescu notes is that, based on her research, working from home overall decreased people’s exposure to both positive and negative gossip.
“What I conclude from this is that is being exposed to a lot of negative information in your work environment is really detrimental, and perhaps working from home can alleviate this,” she says. “The opposite is true for positive gossip. Being broken off from the positive loops that are characteristic of healthy social relationships is detrimental to performance and wellbeing in the workplace.”