The Benefits of Eavesdropping on Office Conversations | Kanebridge News
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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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At the World Plogging Championship, contestants have lugged in tires, TVs and at least one Neapolitan coffee maker

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GENOA, Italy—Renato Zanelli crossed the finish line with a rusty iron hanging from his neck while pulling 140 pounds of trash on an improvised sled fashioned from a slab of plastic waste.

Zanelli, a retired IT specialist, flashed a tired smile, but he suspected his garbage haul wouldn’t be enough to defend his title as world champion of plogging—a sport that combines running with trash collecting.

A rival had just finished the race with a chair around his neck and dragging three tires, a television and four sacks of trash. Another crossed the line with muscles bulging, towing a large refrigerator. But the strongest challenger was Manuel Jesus Ortega Garcia, a Spanish plumber who arrived at the finish pulling a fridge, a dishwasher, a propane gas tank, a fire extinguisher and a host of other odds and ends.

“The competition is intense this year,” said Zanelli. Now 71, he used his fitness and knack for finding trash to compete against athletes half his age. “I’m here to help the environment, but I also want to win.”

Italy, a land of beauty, is also a land of uncollected trash. The country struggles with chronic littering, inefficient garbage collection in many cities, and illegal dumping in the countryside of everything from washing machines to construction waste. Rome has become an emblem of Italy’s inability to fix its trash problem.

So it was fitting that at the recent World Plogging Championship more than 70 athletes from 16 countries tested their talents in this northern Italian city. During the six hours of the race, contestants collect points by racking up miles and vertical distance, and by carrying as much trash across the finish line as they can. Trash gets scored based on its weight and environmental impact. Batteries and electronic equipment earn the most points.

A mobile app ensures runners stay within the race’s permitted area, approximately 12 square miles. Athletes have to pass through checkpoints in the rugged, hilly park. They are issued gloves and four plastic bags to fill with garbage, and are also allowed to carry up to three bulky finds, such as tires or TVs.

Genoa, a gritty industrial port city in the country’s mountainous northwest, has a trash problem that gets worse the further one gets away from its relatively clean historic core. The park that hosted the plogging championship has long been plagued by garbage big and small.

“It’s ironic to have the World Plogging Championship in a country that’s not always as clean as it could be. But maybe it will help bring awareness and things will improve,” said Francesco Carcioffo, chief executive of Acea Pinerolese Industriale, an energy and recycling company that’s been involved in sponsoring and organizing the race since its first edition in 2021. All three world championships so far have been held in Italy.

Events that combine running and trash-collecting go back to at least 2010. The sport gained traction about seven years ago when a Swede, Erik Ahlström, coined the name plogging, a mashup of plocka upp, Swedish for “pick up,” and jogging.

“If you don’t have a catchy name you might as well not exist,” said Roberto Cavallo, an Italian environmental consultant and longtime plogger, who is on the world championship organizing committee together with Ahlström.

Saturday’s event brought together a mix of wiry trail runners and environmental activists, some of whom looked less like elite athletes.

“We like plogging because it makes us feel a little less guilty about the way things are going with the environment,” said Elena Canuto, 29, as she warmed up before the start. She came in first in the women’s ranking two years ago. “This year I’m taking it a bit easier because I’m three months pregnant.”

Around two-thirds of the contestants were Italians. The rest came from other European countries, as well as Japan, Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico, Algeria, Ghana and Senegal.

“I hope to win so people in Senegal get enthusiastic about plogging,” said Issa Ba, a 30-year-old Senegalese-born factory worker who has lived in Italy for eight years.

“Three, two, one, go,” Cavallo shouted over a loudspeaker, and the athletes sprinted off in different directions. Some stopped 20 yards from the starting line to collect their first trash. Others took off to be the first to exploit richer pickings on wooded hilltops, where batteries and home appliances lay waiting.

As the hours went by, the athletes crisscrossed trails and roads, their bags became heavier. They tagged their bulky items and left them at roadsides for later collection. Contestants gathered at refreshment points, discussing what they had found as they fueled up on cookies and juice. Some contestants had brought their own reusable cups.

With 30 minutes left in the race, athletes were gathering so much trash that the organisers decided to tweak the rules: in addition to their four plastic bags, contestants could carry six bulky objects over the finish line rather than three.

“I know it’s like changing the rules halfway through a game of Monopoly, but I know I can rely on your comprehension,” Cavallo announced over the PA as the athletes braced for their final push to the finish line.

The rule change meant some contestants could almost double the weight of their trash, but others smelled a rat.

“That’s fantastic that people found so much stuff, but it’s not really fair to change the rules at the last minute,” said Paul Waye, a Dutch plogging evangelist who had passed up on some bulky trash because of the three-item rule.

Senegal will have to wait at least a year to have a plogging champion. Two hours after the end of Saturday’s race, Ba still hadn’t arrived at the finish line.

“My phone ran out of battery and I got lost,” Ba said later at the awards ceremony. “I’ll be back next year, but with a better phone.”

The race went better for Canuto. She used an abandoned shopping cart to wheel in her loot. It included a baby stroller, which the mother-to-be took as a good omen. Her total haul weighed a relatively modest 100 pounds, but was heavy on electronic equipment, which was enough for her to score her second triumph.

“I don’t know if I’ll be back next year to defend my title. The baby will be six or seven months old,” she said.

In the men’s ranking, Ortega, the Spanish plumber, brought in 310 pounds of waste, racked up more than 16 miles and climbed 7,300 feet to run away with the title.

Zanelli, the defending champion, didn’t make it onto the podium. He said he would take solace from the nearly new Neapolitan coffee maker he found during the first championship two years ago. “I’ll always have my victory and the coffee maker, which I polished and now display in my home,” he said.

Contestants collected more than 6,600 pounds of trash. The haul included fridges, bikes, dozens of tires, baby seats, mattresses, lead pipes, stoves, chairs, TVs, 1980s-era boomboxes with cassettes still inside, motorcycle helmets, electric fans, traffic cones, air rifles, a toilet and a soccer goal.

“This park hasn’t been this clean since the 15 century,” said Genoa’s ambassador for sport, Roberto Giordano.


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