Office life is back. And while it's bringing with it earlier mornings, commutes, and dress codes, it's also reintroducing into our work lives a cheeky feature that WFH retired: office gossip.

I can see you now, rolling your eyes. Gossip gets a bad rap. At its worst, it's a toxic habit with the potential to damage relationships and hurt feelings. This is not untrue. But at its best?

Companies don't need to spend so much money

Businesses are already on a quest to seduce their employees back to the office using external incentives. Zoom has introduced morning wellness classes; Goldman Sachs is offering free lunches; and Google HQ has organized a private concert with Lizzo for its employees -- all to get them excited about coming back.

But what if businesses instead tapped into an intrinsic -- and far cheaper -- incentive that is unique to the workplace and which will keep employees coming back of their own accord? After all, humans have an innate willingness to engage in behaviors that facilitate their need to belong. And one way to do it? Gossiping.

Why should your business care?

  1. Gossip can lead to a culture of self-improvement. Healthy gossip is an automatic, behavior-correcting tool for your business. Research shows that when reputational information spreads, those ostracized for being socially "bad" respond by rematching their behavior to the commonly acceptable standard. In other words, gossip induces self-improvement in your workforce. This self-improvement does not go unnoticed and will result in higher cooperation with the "rehabilitated" employee, and better teamwork overall. All for free.
  2. Gossip can provide a reality check. Knowledge allows us to competitively manage our reputations -- so people like to be in on things. When we know less about our peers (as is the case when WFH), we become worse at strategizing, setting goals, and accurately figuring out where we fit in the social hierarchies within our work networks. This affects productivity, engagement, and workplace loyalty.

When we gossip, this stress dissolves. Our reality is confirmed, we find people who mirror our thoughts and concerns, and we feel more confident in where we fit in. This "water-cooler talk" has no Zoom equivalent.

What can your business do about it?

  1. Start with your office's architecture. According to a survey by Envoy, 61 percent of companies surveyed are reconfiguring their office space to whet the post-pandemic employee's appetite. This means more collaboration spaces, more meeting spaces, and more meeting rooms. What do all these features have in common? They facilitate the free flow and exchange of ideas ... and gossip.
  2. Use FOMO to your advantage. People are people-centric -- we love to talk to each other and about each other. We also don't like missing out. Draw your employees to the office by advertising the kinds of social news, parties, and events they may be missing out on while WFH. 

The benefits of office gossip outweigh its costs. But, as things do with human beings, it can get ugly. The good thing is that research shows negative gossip is more targeted -- its objects are specific individuals, usually those low on informality -- and so easier to spot and control. All it takes is resteering the conversation.