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When Employees Spend Too Much Time at the Watercooler

Most leaders want their companies to have a culture that makes employees actually enjoy coming to work. In addition to the heightened productivity, another benefit of a strong company culture is that it facilitates the building of friendships and bonds that increase employee engagement and happiness. Happy employees stay longer and can save the company money (by both decreasing costs associated with turnover and performing their jobs better).

But what happens when your employees get too comfortable and end up spending more time socializing than working? Although catching up on Monday morning should be encouraged, too much employee time spent at the watercooler or in the break room can not only lead to lost productivity but can actually damage the company culture. 

When Careerbuilder surveyed employees about what they considered to be the biggest obstacles to productivity, 42 percent pointed to office gossip and 23 percent mentioned coworkers dropping by to chat. If you think those figures might hold true for your office, it’s time to deal with the problem promptly and tactfully. At the same time, though, remember that you still want to maintain the culture you have built—and “scolding” employees about chatting too much could backfire and undermine your efforts.

First, have private conversations with people who are being excessively chatty in the workplace—but be nice about it. In these situations, stress resilience expert Mark Gorkin urges, “Don’t be judgmental, harsh, [or] selfish, or impose blame.” There’s a very good chance that people in this situation don’t realize how disruptive they are being (perhaps “because they have difficulty reading social cues”). A nonaccusatory approach is the most productive way to frame this type of conversation, so start with the assumption that there’s no ill intent—maybe just a little cluelessness. Be clear about what is problematic about the employee’s behavior, and offer guidance on how you expect him or her to act in the future.

In addition to having these conversations with chatterboxes, implement policies that can help those employees who are easily distracted in the office. Consider allowing employees to telecommute, for example, or designate quiet areas that employees can reserve when they need to work without interruption. When the social elements of a workplace make it difficult for someone to get his or her job done, they are no longer positive but become negative for that person.

A strong company culture does not appear overnight. Building it requires leveraging a combination of leadership, policies, communication, teamwork, and fun in order to foster employees’ connections with each other and with the organization. Even the strongest culture isn’t immune to problems, though—especially when they arise from within—so be sure to address them as soon as they appear.

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