Overhearing something juicy can be a huge high, especially compared to the relative staleness of today’s remote water cooler chatter. But experts say that intentionally eavesdropping at work can actually boost your career (if not a jolt of excitement from hearing something you shouldn’t have).
It’s something that’s been missing in our remote work world. While proponents argue that much of the office experience can be more or less replicated virtually, eavesdropping can’t—especially because Slack, Zoom, and email correspondence can be monitored and used against you. Eavesdropping, alongside gossiping and a spur-of-the-moment conversation, creates unplannable moments that just don’t translate online (another point for the return-to-office zealots). These small connections can also educate those who started a new job during the pandemic, and especially for young workers who may have never been in an office full-time. Having begun their careers from home, many of them likely lack the soft skills their employers find crucial—learning by osmosis could be the answer there, too.
Training and onboarding is universally acknowledged to be better done in-person. Indeed, listening in on the hum of office chatter is “a huge form of education—hearing what other people are saying, how they’re dealing with problems,” John Hayes, founder of Philadelphia-based Blackney Hayes Architects, recently told the Wall Street Journal.
“Learning doesn’t happen on Zoom calls. It happens during meetings, together, through body language, listening to how people approach certain situations,” Jenny von Podewils, co-CEO of HR productivity and engagement platform Leapsome, added to the Journal.
Both Hayes and von Podewils said they recommend a hybrid plan at their companies, so workers can reap the benefits of flexible hours and work-from-anywhere autonomy alongside the mentoring and connection that budding professionals want most.
Eavesdropping is also helpful for those at the top. “The only effective ways for managers to gain information is to ask employees directly through one-on-one talks or gathering feedback with anonymity,” Arno Markus, CEO of job search firm iCareerSolutions, told the Society for Human Resource Management earlier on in the pandemic. Overheard gossip is undiluted information for managers that they’re unlikely to get elsewhere that he says can be used to improve work situations or even solve conflicts.
How to use eavesdropping to your advantage
In a typical open-plan office, overhearing your coworkers can be more of an annoyance than a rush. But it can also be valuable. “You could eavesdrop on something gossipy, but also to get information that you need to do your job,” or to prepare for potentially bad company news, Leila Bighash, a communications professor at the University of Arizona, told Quartz.
While it’s best done in the office, she encouraged remote workers to lurk in public Slack channels and read up on any open calendars, see who’s meeting with who, and infer what those meetings may mean. Doing so can help you form bonds with coworkers, better understand a boss’ perspective, or even, piece by piece, uncover the actual meaning underpinning a company announcement. The key is to use the newfound information wisely, she says, and to not forget that overheard snippets aren’t the full story.
“Eavesdropping is prone to be partial and incomplete,” Andrew Challenger, VP of executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, told BBC in 2017. But it can allow you to see “how people interact with each other…and that’s part of the way to learn about specific [office] culture.” (But don’t take it too far, Challenger cautioned. “It’s important to have your co-workers feel like they can trust you.”)
Plus, you needn’t feel guilty about nosiness—it’s coded in your brain. “People try not to pay attention [when hearing nearby colleagues] but basically you have to,” Princeton psychology professor Lauren Emberson told BBC. “Your brain is constantly monitoring the environment…when something surprising happens, [you] automatically move towards it.”
If you’re only in the office a day or two per week, that probably means it’s a good idea to pick a desk near the kitchen with earbuds in and music off.