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

By Alina Dizik
June 10, 2023 9:00 am ET

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 organizational 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 realize 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
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 organizational behavior 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 behaviors, 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.



























How has eavesdropping at work helped you? Join the conversation below.

“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 reacclimating 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
“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.