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The Upside of "Office Buzz" (or, "Stop Working and Start Talking!")

If you put a microphone in every hallway, stairwell, and coffee station in your organization, what would you overhear? According to a variety of studies, the breakdown would look something like this:

Gossip (14%). People love to talk about office intrigue: Who's sleeping with whom? Did so-and-so really quit "to pursue other options" or was he fired? How did that idiot get promoted? Who does the boss currently loathe or love?

They also discuss childcare facilities, restaurants, television programs, and sporting events. And in doing so they bond and build relationships that will become the foundation for trust and knowledge sharing. But all of this is only a fraction of what's being discussed when employees get together.

Business (86%). Most office conversations do have a work-related focus: Who's reliable/trustworthy/informed? How am I supposed to behave in this situation? Have you ever dealt with this customer/problem/manager before? What does it take to succeed in this culture?

People share information about their projects, collaborate to develop innovative products and services, and have real-world discussions about "how things get done around here."

And that's how "office buzz" becomes money in the bank for an enterprise.

An organization's cumulative knowledge is stored in the heads of individuals and disseminated through the information and stories they exchange within the networks they access. People learn more from comparing experiences in the hallways than from reading the company's official manuals, going online to a knowledge repository, or attending training classes. And, as a result of these informal conversations, the organization builds its worth. While there is no denying the importance of classes, databases, and books, the value of simply getting people together and encouraging them to talk is often overlooked.

Xerox Corporation learned this lesson when it was looking for a way to boost the productivity of its field service staff. A cultural anthropologist traveled with a group of tech reps to observe how they actually did their jobs, as opposed to how they described what they did or what their managers assumed they did. The anthropologist discovered that the reps spent more time with each other than with customers. They'd gather in common areas like the local parts warehouse or around the coffee pot to swap stories from the field. These were the times when the reps asked each other questions, identified problems, and shared new solutions as they devised them.

Impressed by the potential of these informal employee gatherings, Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) added a technological element, and wired the coffeepot to computer monitors. Any time someone brewed a fresh pot of coffee an icon flashed on employees' screens. People would come out of their offices from various parts of the building to meet by the coffeepot. As the ensuing conversations became more complex, PARC installed huge white boards around the coffee area, so that people could draw diagrams and write out key points. This in turn allowed others who were in the area to see where the discussion was heading, and to join in.

To encourage employees to linger and chat with one another, some companies have designed wide stairwells with large landings. Others have created attractive employee "commons" areas, and meeting planners have been asked to designate more time for informal interaction at business conferences.

Did you ever think you'd see the day? In a complete reversal from the old "stop wasting time—and get back to work" mentality, the most progressive companies today are helping employees find ways to stop "working" and start talking!