I’ve now had countless meetings in Teams, taken part in Zoom conferences with South African colleagues, and responded to hundreds of emails and App messages. I can proudly say that I am busy (and even experiencing a certain amount of ‘Zoom fatigue’). Even though I spend most of the day behind my computer screen, and interact with a lot of people, something has been sorely missing from my work life. The gossip.
I miss the coffee machine down the hallway. I miss popping into colleagues’ offices to hear the latest. I miss the drinks after work.
As we all quickly moved to remote offices because of Covid-19, I wondered, how did gossip change? Initially, I had the feeling gossip was simply eradicated from our online universe. There was simply less to talk about (other than the coronavirus and its consequences).
But as we gradually eased into our new home offices, we also gained access to a new window onto our colleagues’ lives. Do people now gossip about Mary’s kitschy interior decoration, I wondered? Or talk about how Thomas’ home office can be so messy when he’s such a control freak at work? (At least, before we figured out how to blur or change our backgrounds). Do my younger, more tech-savvy colleagues make fun of me when my mic goes dead for the umpteenth time? (And yes, I did click unmute!). Or when my camera zooms in and out uncontrollably, highlighting every wrinkle and pimple along the way?
As we grappled with the technology, especially at the beginning of the lockdown, did we make any noteworthy blunders? Did some people, for example, accidentally post a bitchy comment about their manager on the Teams chat for all to see (thinking that they were on their personal WhatsApp)? Or did employees sometimes pull exasperated faces or make rude gestures during a meeting, forgetting that their cameras were actually turned on?
Even professionals make mistakes. An American journalist recently appeared live from his home office, on Good Morning America in his underpants. He blamed his faux pas on a “badly framed camera shot.” The audience was only supposed to see his shirt and suit jacket. He later joked that “he would not be getting hired as a camera operator anytime soon.”
In the Australian article, How Covid-19 changed the way we gossip, the authors noticed that once people settled into their routines and talks about the corona virus started to grow old, there was “enormous screenshotting going on.” People were sending screenshots around with comments like “‘can you fucking believe what he just said?’ or DMs and Instagram posts with words like ‘check out so and so, that looks incredible’ or ‘check out this person, I think they’re smoking something.’” The fact that the American journalist in his underpants went viral on Twitter, illustrates this well.
Our appetite for gossip has not diminished. According to one study, office gossip has always been around. But when it happens via the “e-grapevine,” new problems emerge. For one, gossip and rumors spread a lot faster. Certain companies (in the U.S.) have already sued employees for spreading false information, for example, or for provoking “emotional distress” to colleagues.
Gossiping online is a fine art, as it can easily lead to wild misinterpretation.
According to an article in Harvard Business Review, the biggest problem is that body language is sorely missing from our texts, emails and conference calls. “The tone of a text or the formality of an email is left wide open to interpretation, to the point that even our closest friends get confused.”
But even with the absence of body language, we can still easily give away more information than we intend to. “There’s still a great deal of meta-communication and virtual leakage that happens in digital environments, and it only takes paying attention to read between the lines. For example, the use of exclamation marks or a negative emoji after referring to someone’s gender, nationality, or religion is as powerful a marker of disapproval as a disgusted face,” according to Harvard Business Review.
As we are reinventing the terms of engagement and the rules of the game when it comes to office gossip, I am curious: what do people talk about? What is the etiquette? What will be the hidden rules to navigate the e-grapevine effectively?
I am sure time will tell. But I would love to know your thoughts!