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Howard Tullman
As team members stream back to the workplace, don’t expect life to resume where it left off two years ago.

27-Apr-22 – There are probably at least a dozen good reasons for folks to look forward to getting out of their houses, off the Zoom calls, and back to the office. But none will be more important than the long-awaited return to those time-honored and ritualistic watercooler conversations.

These critical daily pipelines for the most current, direct, and valuable dissemination of the gospel, gossip, and goings-on of any business are, without question, the most effective purveyors of connection, engagement, and company culture ever invented.

In most companies, more substantive and actionable information generally flows back and forth during such sessions than in any formally organized meetings – where no one wants to be too outspoken, too woke, or not woke enough, or too far ahead of the pack. Meetings these days make mainly for consensus, wasted time, and mediocrity.

Forget about Teams and Slack as well. They may be handy for real-time messaging and short alerts, but they’re sterile, noisy, and cluttered environments largely drained of real interpersonal connection and emotional engagement. These uncontrolled channels quickly turn into sewers of specious sentiment, woke wars, and podiums for the loudest, most voluminous, and most pedantic voices in the conversation.

There’s simply no good alternative to getting the juicy tidbits directly and personally right from the horse’s mouth.

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That’s why word of mouth (WOM) is still the most credible, authentic, and valuable endorsement and recommendation vehicle that businesses can employ to get their messages to their employees and out to the marketplace.

In a word, WOM works best at work.

While millions of Americans have largely given up on the mainstream media as a source of objective truth, we still basically want to trust the folks we work with every day to give us the straight scoop. Pre-pandemic, the peer-to-peer, face-to-face workplace was the best place to be – and to be seen and heard – because we trust the people that we know and with whom we spend most of our daily waking hours.

Even more importantly, the work environment serves a curatorial and collective function for us. We know where our friends, peers, and others are bound to be found, and we know when they’ll be there and how to readily access them.

All of this reliable regularity, of course, is now entirely up for grabs.

Political discussion will be a minefield

It’s already clear that the office environment will be considerably different than our fond and nostalgic memories of the places we left. One thing for sure: discussing politics in the office is a no-win proposition, a waste of breath, and bad for the business as well.

Given the substantial time that we’ve all been homebound and imprisoned in carefully filtered online information bubbles, we’re going to find it challenging, upsetting, and highly revelatory when we leave our own little echo chambers and COVID-19 clans to get back to the work world. We’ll reacquaint ourselves with seriously changed old friends and somewhat unknown new ones; and immediately get a strong dose of the new realities. As much as we all think we’ve just been cooped up in suspended animation for two years, we’ve all had very different experiences – mostly bad – and they’ve left scars, sour spots, and a lot of tender sensibilities.

The common ground, the shared views, and even the watercooler conversations simply aren’t going to provide the safe spaces they once did. Word of mouth is going to have to work even harder and in dramatically circumscribed circumstances. Management is going to have to quickly and clearly set out some new keys, rules of the road, and frankly some limitations – freedom of speech notwithstanding – on what are going to be genial conversations in the “new” world of work.

In the hybrid world we’re looking at, it’s not enough to say that we need your body at the office three days a week, rain or shine, because that doesn’t really make much sense to anyone.

I’m not simply talking about pronouns, although, even there, most of the world doesn’t understand or appreciate what the constantly shifting appropriate protocols are – and why, apparently, it’s no longer proper to even ask. In a world of pronoun-denominated name tags, the next step may have to be warning signs we all wear (like convention badges) outlining the matters and topics we’d be pleased to never discuss at the office. This turn of events may be good for sports fans (arguably still a safe topic), but it’s going to be hard on most other day-to-day social chatter.

We’re going to have to carefully rebuild and restructure the watercooler conversations because they’re the heart of the information sharing systems, and those informal sharing systems are how we develop, build, and sustain our trust in and comfort with our peers and others.

Ultimately, it’s that basic trust that’s the fundamental foundation of all the commercial interactions we have with – and all the business we do with – each other.

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If simple trust and social sharing disappears, there’s very little left upon which to form the common bonds and connections we need to make our commerce systems and our society work.

So, the question really is what should the new rules of the road be and how should they be implemented in a way that doesn’t simply cause new and different problems? If you’re a business aggressively trying to (a) get your people back to business and (b) trying to keep them from spending inordinate amounts of time every day arguing with each other about things that don’t mean a hill of beans to the business, here are a few thoughts and suggestions.

1 First and foremost, focus on the few. Only about ten percent of your team members are the most active sharers – they’re well-intentioned, think they’re being additive and helpful, and they can’t really help themselves. These are the folks who make it their business to mind other people’s business and they’re the ones that need to be reminded that the office is no longer the place for too much chatter about sensitive subjects.

2 Second, create a better, structured, and finite outlet for the discussions. In the hybrid world we’re looking at, it’s not enough to say that we need your body at the office three days a week, rain or shine (or something like that), because that doesn’t really make much sense to anyone. It’s much better to offer a concrete reason to return and to say something like we’re having a regularly scheduled “educational” event – every week or every other week – and we want you there to listen and learn.

You don’t have to agree with the speaker, you don’t have to participate in the discussion, and you don’t have to be convinced of anything. But this is the exclusive forum, time, and place in which we are now addressing many of these kinds of complicated and contested concerns. Take it or leave it.

3 Finally, and this is the hardest question, decide whether, why, and how your company is going to express a position on some or any of these hot-button issues given that you can be absolutely certain that there is ZERO unanimity across your entire workforce on any of these matters. If Disney still can’t figure out how to do these kinds of things, maybe discretion is the better part of valor for you and your business – at least for the moment.