The Benefits of Eavesdropping on Office Conversations
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The Benefits of Eavesdropping on Office Conversations

Employees—and bosses—can learn a lot of useful information by listening in on the chatter around them

By Alina Dizik
Tue, Jun 13, 2023 9:16amGrey Clock 4 min

It is one of the hardest things about working in an office: You are constantly overhearing other people. Sometimes it is just distracting chatter. Sometimes it is the proverbial “too much information” about people’s lives or projects. And, of course, sometimes other people are listening in on you.

But what if the ability to eavesdrop is a benefit for your work life, not a negative?

Workers can gain a host of insights from the buzz of conversations around them, some executives and researchers say. Eavesdropping not only can deliver information about what is happening at the company, it can help people understand their colleagues’ mind-sets, workloads and moods. It can help people learn who’s who in the organisational structure and pick up tips on how to have certain kinds of conversations. Some workplaces are even trying to create opportunities for this kind of informational osmosis to occur.

This new respect for eavesdropping is driven in part by the return to work after the pandemic. Employees are starting to realise how much they benefited from the information they absorb by seeing co-workers in person—anything from weekend plans to forthcoming work projects.

“They have more opportunities to listen in on the water-cooler conversations,” says Johnny Taylor, chief executive of SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management.

Chattering classes

Robert Burns, a marketing director at Sunnking, an electronics recycler in Brockport, N.Y., says that he often eavesdrops on co-workers as they make their business calls. It helps him better understand how they speak about the company to clients or vendors, which, in turn, helps him pick up tips on what does and doesn’t work, he says.

After overhearing them, he also has given co-workers “talking points” to help them use less industry jargon when discussing the recycling business. The object, he says, is to make it easier for them to relate to clients. “It benefits me in this role and my team to hear what everyone is doing—whether they like it or not,” he says.

Burns is careful of what is said in more hushed tones around the office. When he overhears information being said in a whisper, he is more hesitant about bringing it up later or in meetings. “I can probably hear it, but I don’t need to acknowledge it,” he says. “It’s kind of an unwritten understanding.”

The biggest benefits to eavesdropping go beyond hearing what is said, according to researchers. Seeing who is talking to whom can make it easier to accurately map out other people’s networks, says Hillary Anger Elfenbein, professor of organisational behaviour at Washington University in St. Louis who studies the topic. With that knowledge, employees can better understand how to influence company decision makers based on whom they know or where to turn to find information.

In her research, she found that most employees find it difficult to accurately define these networks without in-person opportunities. Even if the chat is muffled, “you hear about the relationship between them,” she says, through cues like body language.

In recent years, when fewer people are in the office, being in a situation to overhear conversations is also “more valuable for the eavesdropper,” says Elfenbein. With fewer chances for in-person conversations taking place, every chance to listen in is all the more important.

Deploying design

Many companies are starting to see the benefits of promoting awareness of workplace behaviours, including overheard conversations, and are exploring office layouts that encourage the practice, says Brian Stromquist, who leads the technology workplace practice at design and architecture firm Gensler. Specifically, he is seeing more interest from companies that want eavesdropping to serve as an informal way of mentorship between junior and senior employees. A newer employee can benefit simply from overhearing a more senior person participating in a meeting, solving a problem or leading a project.

“Eavesdropping is seen as a subset of observation where junior employees can observe leadership qualities,” he says.

From a design perspective, that means Gensler is now creating more spaces where there are different areas that are explicitly designed to encourage and discourage listening, “allowing for a spectrum of acoustic privacy,” says Stromquist, who is based in San Francisco. For instance, an area of open desks may make it purposely simple to overhear conversations, while another part of the floor may use music or white noise to create an atmosphere more conducive to privacy, he says. Deep-focus spaces or quiet libraries are explicitly places where employees should not be listened to, he adds.

“As people are re acclimating to the office, they’ve kind of established this new set of protocols that really recommend how you might use new spaces within the office,” he says.

Mind your manners

Of course, no one recommends purposely seeking out private or personal conversations to listen in on. And you should only act on information that you overheard without violating somebody else’s privacy.

“You don’t want to create a culture where people feel like you’re big-brothering them and hearing everything they say,” says Adam Struck, founder of Struck Capital, a venture-capital firm based in Los Angeles.

It is possible that employees in certain roles are more likely to be in need of eavesdropping for success, says Leila Bighash, assistant professor of communication at the University of Arizona, who studies social eavesdropping. Previous research showed that nurses, physicians and hospital staff were more likely to consider eavesdropping at work as integral to their job because they could overhear information at a cardiac intensive-care unit that was critical to a patient’s health.

People in a cutthroat work environment may also benefit more from eavesdropping, Bighash says. In those workplaces, people may be more reluctant to share information in direct conversation with certain people. So employees who listen to others can learn about projects outside of their department, or potential conflicts or challenges.

Digital eavesdropping

Eavesdropping doesn’t have to be confined to in-person conversations. With so many people keeping in touch with far-flung co-workers digitally, there are now more companies replicating the office environment by offering more opportunities for digital eavesdropping, says Paul Leonardi, professor of Technology Management at UC Santa Barbara.

One opportunity to digitally eavesdrop is through Slack channels or other messaging apps that allow for many participants, he says. Another is for people to access company materials and presentations online or by listening to recorded Zoom calls that aren’t directly related to their work, says Leonardi.

Leonardi suggests using messaging apps, including Slack, to get a sense of other employees’ lives, especially outside of work. In his research, he finds that information from this kind of digital eavesdropping—such as details about a vacation—makes a good ice breaker when approaching these same workers offline.

“People’s comfort at reaching out to other people on whose information they have eavesdropped increases if they know stuff about them,” he says.

But be cautious when using overheard information, says Deborah Grayson Riegel, an executive coach in Chapel Hill, N.C., who works with large companies on communication. Much of the time, employees need to be aware that some of the information may be confidential, jeopardise company initiatives or simply be interpreted incorrectly.

“You need to understand that you are hearing it out of context, and it’s not the full story,” she says.



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Playful 1950s style spotlights details like coloured cabinets, checkerboard and mosaic tile patterns, vintage lighting, and SMEG appliances

By TRACY KALER
Mon, Apr 22, 2024 6 min

The 1950s spawned society’s view of kitchens as the heart of the home, a hub for gathering, cooking, eating and socializing. Thus, it makes perfect sense that the same decade could inspire today’s luxury kitchens.

“The deliberate playfulness and genius of the era’s designers have enabled the mid-century style to remain a classic design and one that still sparks joy,” said James Yarosh, an interior designer and gallerist in New Jersey.

That playful style spotlights details like coloured cabinets, checkerboard and mosaic tile patterns, vintage lighting, and SMEG appliances—all of which are a conspicuous rejection of the sterile, monochrome kitchens that have defined luxury home design for years. One of the hottest brands to incorporate into retro-style kitchens, SMEG is turning up more these days. But the question is: How do you infuse a colourful refrigerator and other elements from this nostalgic era without creating a kitschy room?

“The key to a modern, fresh look in your kitchen is to reference, not imitate, signature looks of the 1950s,” said New York-based designer Andrew Suvalsky, who often laces retro style throughout the rooms he designs. He said using the period as inspiration will steer you away from imagining a garish space.

“When it comes to incorporating that retro-esque look, it’s a fine dance between looking beautiful and looking kitschy,” added Lisa Gilmore, a designer in Tampa, Florida. Gilmore suggested balancing contemporary pieces with vintage touches. That balance forges a functional yet attractive design that’s easy to live with while evoking a homey atmosphere––and ultimately, a room everyone wants to be in.

Colour Reigns Supreme

Suvalsky said one way to avoid a kitschy appearance is to mingle woods and colours, such as lacquered base cabinets and walnut wall cabinets, as he did in his Montclair, New Jersey, kitchen.

“Mixing colours into your kitchen is most effective when it’s done by colour-blocking––using a single colour across large areas of a space––in this case, zones of cabinetry,” he explained. He tends to lean toward “Easter egg colours,” such as baby chick yellow and pale tangerine. These soft pastels can suggest a starting point for the design while lending that retro vibe. But other hues can spark a vintage feel as well.

A mid-century-inspired kitchen by Blythe Interiors.
Natalia Robert

“Shades of green and blue are a timeless base foundation that work for a 1950s vintage look,” said designer Jennifer Verruto of Blythe Interiors in San Diego. But wood isn’t off the table for her, either. “To embrace the character of a mid-century home, we like a Kodiak stain to enhance the gorgeous walnut grain,” she said. “This mid-tone wood is perfect for contrasting other lighter finishes in the kitchen for a Mid-Century Modern feel.”

Since colour is subjective, a kitchen lined with white cabinetry can assume a retro aesthetic through accoutrements and other materials, emanating that ’50s vibe.

“The fun of retro designs is that you can embrace colour and create something that feels individual to the house and its homeowner, reflecting their tastes and personality,” Yaosh said. He recommended wallpaper as an option to transform a kitchen but suggested marrying the pattern with the bones of the house. “Wallpaper can create a mid-century or retro look with colours and hand-blocked craftsmanship,” he said. “Mauny wallpapers at Zuber are a particular favourite of mine.”

Suvalsky suggested Scalamandre wallpapers, for their 1950s patterns, and grass cloth, a textile that was often used during that decade. He also likes House of Hackney, a brand that “does a great job reinventing vintage prints in luscious colours,” he noted. “Many of their colourways invert the typical relationship between light and dark, with botanical prints in dark jewel tones set over light, more playful colours.”

Materials Matter

Beyond wall covering, flooring, countertops and backsplashes can all contribute to the 1950s theme. Manufactured laminate countertops, specifically Formica, were all the rage during the decade. But today’s high-end kitchens call for more luxurious materials and finishes.

“That’s a situation where going the quartz route is appropriate,” Gilmore said. “There are quartzes that are a through-body colour and simple if someone is doing colorued cabinetry. A simplified white without veining will go a long way.” She also recommended Pompei quartz Sunny Pearl, which has a speckled appearance.

A kitchen designed by James Yarosh that incorporates pops of yellow.
Patricia Burke

But for those who welcome vibrant colour schemes, countertops can make a bold statement in a vintage kitchen. Gilmore said solid surface materials from the era were often a colour, and quartz can replicate the look.

“Some brands have coloured quartz, like red,” she said. But keeping countertops neutral allows you to get creative with the backsplash. “I‘d pull in a terrazzo backsplash or a bold colour like a subway tile in a beautiful shade of green or blush,” Gilmore said. “Make the backsplash a piece of art.”

Suvalsky also leans toward bright and daring––such as checkerboards––for the backsplash. But depending on the kitchen’s design, he’ll go quieter with a double white herringbone [tile] pattern. “Either version works, but it must complement other choices, bold or simple, in the design,” he explained.

Neutral countertops with a bold backsplash, designed by Lisa Gilmore.
Native House Photography

Likewise, his flooring choice almost always draws attention. “My tendency is more toward very bold, such as a heavily veined marble or a pattern with highly contrasting tones,” he noted. Yarosh suggested slate and terrazzo as flooring, as these materials can make an excellent backdrop for layering.

Forge a Statement With Vintage Appliances 

As consequential as a kitchen’s foundation is, so are the appliances and accoutrements. While stainless steel complements contemporary kitchens, homeowners can push the design envelope with companies like SMEG when making appliance selections for a retro-style kitchen. Although Suvalsky has yet to specify a SMEG fridge, he is looking forward to the project when he can.

“I think they work best when the selected colour is referenced in other parts of the kitchen, which helps to integrate these otherwise ‘look at me’ pieces into the broader design,” he noted. “They are like sculptures unto themselves.”

“For our mid-century-inspired projects, we’ve opted for Big Chill and the GE Cafe Series to bring a vintage look,” Verruto added. Similar to SMEG, Big Chill and GE offer a vintage vibe in a wide selection of colours and finishes, alongside 21st-century performance.

Can’t commit to a full-size appliance? Sometimes, a splash is enough. Gilmore tends to dust her retro kitchens with a coloured kettle or toaster since her clients are likelier to add a tinge with a countertop appliance or two. “Mint green accessories make it pop, and if in five years they are over it, it’s not a commitment,” she said. “It’s a great way to infuse fun and colour without taking a major risk.”

Deck out the Breakfast Nook

Kitchen dining areas present the opportunity to introduce retro lighting, furniture, and accessories to complete the look. Flea markets and antique markets are excellent places to hunt for accompaniments.

“Dome pendants and Sputnik chandeliers are iconic styles that will infuse vintage charm into your kitchen while also easily complementing a variety of other styles,” Verruto said.

A retro breakfast nook desinged by Andrew Suvalsky.
DLux Editions

Suspend a vintage light fixture over the classic Saarinen table, and you can’t go wrong.

“Saarinen Tulip Tables are almost always guaranteed to deliver a home run in nearly any interior, especially a 1950s-themed kitchen,” Suvalsky said. “The simplicity of its form, especially in white, makes it nearly impossible to clash with.”

To really channel the vibe of this era, Verruto suggested local vintage stores and brands such as Drexel Heritage and Lexington. Dressing the windows counts, too. “Cafe curtains in a chintz pattern will make for a fabulous finishing touch,” she said.

Meanwhile, Yarosh delights in selecting tabletop items, including novelty stemware and other trappings ubiquitous in the 1950s. “Mid-century kitchens also need to have pedestal cake plates and maybe a cloche to keep a cake,” he mused. “I love the opportunity to curate these details down to the correct fork and serving pieces.”

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