The world of work isn’t somewhere where people just exclusively work. They talk about all sorts of stuff- what they watched on TV last night; the results in their favourite sports; politics; love; life…
In my research for Who Shares Wins I found a possibly apocryphal tale of the adoption of email in a law firm back in the 1990s. At first the partners who ran the firm just didn’t understand it, and refused to use the new electronic medium. But one summer there was a cricket test match series and someone in the practice set up an email list to share updates of scores from around the country. That was the thing that unlocked the resistance in senior circles – that people could keep up to date with England’s performance whilst taking a call from a client, well… The value of the medium was unlocked from something distinctly un-work-related.
And this is nothing new. In his wonderful history of the first electronic medium, Tom Standage recounts how early telegraph operators formed social relationships (and even one or two marriages!) by chatting with one another in between sending the paid communications.
As work continues its migration from the physical to virtual, the need to foster tittle-tattle in online places becomes important. As well as the serendipity and value that side conversations can generate (something that John Seely Brown was identifying two decades ago), talking about things other than “the job” are the ways in which social cohesion, trust and a sense of shared identity are fostered. All work and no play makes Jack and Jill very, very dull and untrusting colleagues.
But because so many of the media which provide the social fabric of the virtual organisation are text-based, there is a problem for those that operate in heavily regulated environments. If something is text then is it admissable evidence or a document of record?
In the office of old this didn’t matter. Conversations (whether work related or not) were off the record until someone made the decision to put them on the record, even in the structured format of meetings where the minutes were an abstracted version of what actually happened. But with channels like Slack or Teams, the asynchronous nature of the messaging makes the boundaries very unclear. That’s going to be a problem as regulation designed for an era of paper hits headlong into the digital social enterprise.
Synchronous messaging systems like IM are often ruled “off the record” and can be configured as such. But chat room-like services that maintain the record of conversation (necessary when colleagues often share neither physical space or timezone) will prove more problematic. The tittle-tattle and chat is a vital part of a business being a business, of its culture, of its and its employees sense of identity.
If organisations are lucky their employees will move the off-the-record stuff to private social channels like WhatsApp or Facebook groups (I’ve seen both happen in my research and work in the last couple of years). At that point it goes off radar, and outside of management view. In the long term that could become just as problematic, but an organisation without tittle-tattle is an organisation without a culture.