If you walk around the workplace – be it an office, a warehouse, or a retail location you’ll likely encounter employees who are engaged in conversations; conversations that are open to being viewed as distracting to business or valuable depending on your perspective.
The difference in those environments I mentioned in the opening paragraph is that the office and the warehouse are largely out of both hearing and viewing by the general public. The retail location however is right there in close proximity to the customer. While a customer may be browsing merchandise, they are likely to pick up on the conversation between employees and may feel relegated to a secondary priority; the conversation being of prime importance.
However, the conversations you have in the workplace with your co-workers on company time about your life outside of work; are these kind of discussions discouraged because they negatively impact on productivity? A strong case could be made for this of course because in the case of the retail environment, customers who feel undervalued may simply take their business and their money to another retail store offering similar products but where they feel valued as the number one priority.
Take however the office situation in contrast. I work with a colleague and we share the same workspace. His desk and my desk are essentially joined, and we sit within three feet of each other. When we aren’t facilitating workshops, we co-exist in this space, each facing away from the other, but throughout any given day, we certainly pivot our chairs and talk. While much of what we talk about is work-related, we also share with each other the events going on in our personal lives; our children, our love of sports, house renovation projects, cars etc.
We are first and foremost people in the role of Employment Counsellor; and when we talk and share what’s going on, those shared experiences bring us closer together. We get an idea of what’s important to each other, occasionally we problem-solve together and by suggestion or example, if we can help each other out with those outside issues, we also help each other perform better by being better prepared to do the work our jobs entail.
I’ve experienced in my lifetime of work situations where co-workers have been overheard to discuss their frustrations with clients and customers too; well out of earshot of the public. Venting behind the scenes is not only good as an emotional release, it can be useful if the listener suddenly provides a point of view or alternative explanation for the behaviour of the person the speaker hadn’t previously considered.
I remember being in a Teacher’s lounge in a primary school once, and the host I was meeting with there said to me as the recess bell rang not to read too much into anything I might hear from teachers when they came in and closed the door. This was their place to vent and express their frustration as much as it was a place to grab a beverage and few minutes to themselves. Sure enough, I heard two people that morning talking about two different children they found maddening. They blew off some steam and used some words they’d never repeat outside of that private sanctuary.
Now of course there is a huge difference between spending all your time gossiping and chit-chatting if the quantity of time you are doing this is impacting on your work performance. You can’t very well complain that there just aren’t enough minutes in a day to do all your work if you’re constantly talking with your peers. This is the same as wasting away your time on your personal phone, checking personal emails, personal web pages and social media platforms. If you’re performance is suffering and you’re engaged in too much personal chit-chat, don’t be surprised if you’re called out and told to knock it off.
While there are mental health breaks built into a workers shift – we call them breaks, lunch or dinner; sometimes the chit-chat with a co-worker is a sign that the one initiating it is in need of the discussion. The response of the 2nd co-worker largely determines how the initiated conversation is received. If the 2nd co-worker stops their work, spins around and leans back in their chair, the indication is, “go ahead, I could use a talk myself.” On the other hand, the worker who keeps working, doesn’t turn around and says, “Go ahead, I’m listening but I’ve got to get this done”, is really through body language sending mixed messages. The words may say the conversation is welcomed, but the body language communicates that work is a priority and their attention is divided.
And here you’ve arrived at mutual respect. It is essential that you provide each other in your workplace with enough attention that co-workers feel valued and listened to when they want to engage in conversation. It is equally important however that all workers value the time and work they are paid to do and give that work their highest priority.
How much you share, or how little you share about yourself and listen to your co-workers is an individual choice. While there are times when conversations are so important – a serious injury or death in the family that upset a co-worker; most of the time it is the everyday small talk that people engage in that can become a distraction. Be smart out there.