Secretarial: No smoke without gossip

It is a networkers' paradise: even the e-mail system cannot kill off the smoking room. By Rachelle Thackray
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The Independent Culture
GOSSIP IS the opiate of the oppressed, said the American novelist Erica Jong in 1973. Writing 100 years earlier, the more moralistic George Eliot noted: "Gossip is a sort of smoke that comes from the dirty tobacco-pipes of those who diffuse it: it proves nothing but the bad taste of the smoker."

Taste aside, it's undeniable that the two - gossip and smoking - are constant bedfellows, underlined by a phrase such as "No smoke without fire" becoming a synonym for the act of gossiping. Both have a slightly seedy, surreptitious image, with participants who are ostracised by a primmer majority often gravitating into a tightly knit group. This is exemplified by one legendary Derby company whose employees understood the siege mentality: smokers were forced to retreat with their nicotine sticks to a red square painted by bosses at the back of the office yard.

One journalist, who takes four or five fag breaks each working day, explains: "Smokers form a natural fraternity, and you talk to people in a smoking room who you wouldn't normally talk to. During the time when a lot of changes were going on at the newspaper I work for, people came in here who didn't even smoke. It's like a secret little club, an informal meeting. You can see who's in the room, and there's a sort of loyalty. Whereas you'd never put something in an e-mail that you wouldn't shout across a crowded room."

Years ago, before it became unfashionable to smoke, addicts would puff away at their desks, while private chat was confined to forums such as golf courses, ladies' loos and gentlemen's clubs. With the campaign in recent decades to eradicate smoking in the workplace, smokers have been driven into a corner, but many have turned that to their advantage.

Smoking rooms - known as "sin-bins" in companies all over the UK - have evolved something of a conspiratorial culture, one which, ironically enough, is emulated in the design of new-look "buzz bars", with their emphasis on informal networking, exchange of information in a semi-private environment and, of course, the chance to refresh those little grey cells with a slurp of coffee.

Judi James, a management trainer who recently published a survey with the Industrial Society entitled Sex at Work, believes that employee relations - both personal and business-related - actually thrive in a furtive environment. "You have this little coterie which shares a vice and which bonds together; it's a similar environment to a school common room. It's not like e-mails, where people are paranoid that everybody can read them."

The trend for employees to eat lunch at their desks, she argues, has increased the popularity of other outlets such as smoking rooms and informal meeting places. "People used to cluster round the tea-trolley, but there's no scope for that these days. Even if you go down to the wine bar or pub for lunch, you often can't hear yourself speak. But some companies get worried when staff get together informally. With what I call `corporate anorexia', where staff are doing the jobs of two or three people, there seems to be an unspoken rule that you just have to get on with it.

"On my training courses, people often say they've never spoken to each other, even though they only work 100 yards apart. I have to give them time to get their gripes and grumbles out of the way. A lot of companies are bringing in counsellors if you've got a problem, but you have to ring them up, and that's not networking."

In other companies, informality is carefully nurtured. Mike Klein of London Business School, who has just completed a survey on internal communication, cites one US- affiliated pharmaceutical company which seemed to thrive upon "water- cooler conversation": "This company moved people round very rapidly, so you had these informal networks. But it came to the point where everybody assumed that word would get round quickly enough, and sometimes staff would actually have no idea of what colleagues on the other side were doing." To some, this seemed completely unprofessional.

Some employees may believe the keys to power are to be found among the ashtrays. But David Butcher, director of general management programmes at Cranfield School of Management, says that's not the case: "Most networking which makes any difference is done on a senior management level. Smoking rooms are more of a social club than anything else. Generally speaking, networking is not to do with the exchange of good practice; in fact, it's usually to do with what you can do for yourself."

Opinions differ on whether companies should continue to have smoking rooms. Martin Ball, a spokesman for the smoking rights organisation Forest, estimates there are still 15 million adult smokers in Britain, and predicts that companies are keen to bring smokers back into the office fold by installing sophisticated ventilation systems to get rid of any health risks.

"The trend towards total prohibition is reversing, because a lot of problems follow from throwing the smokers outside. It doesn't mean they will stop smoking; they merely change their patterns of behaviour," Mr Ball says.

But others argue that, despite relatively few companies being prosecuted by non-smokers for their smoking policies (or lack of them), smoking will never again be acceptable in the workplace.

Samantha Sandford of ASH, the anti-smoking organisation, says: "There has been a steady decline in smoking since the 1970s, and the majority of smokers want to give up. Having a no-smoking policy in the workplace provides that incentive."

Mike Klein believes that new electronic systems will be the key to harnessing networking potential: "The next smoking room is going to be the intranet [internal message system]. People are going to figure out who their kindred spirits are in the company, and use this as a reference group upon which to network. The smoking room has been a great social equaliser, but there will be more far-reaching consequences as companies figure out what they are going to do about intranets."

But Doug Gummery, health and safety adviser for the Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD), believes there will always be a place for covert whispering. "We are talking about people being social animals and needing to communicate; they like to gossip. People are reluctant to put their ideas on the intranet because they may be misconstrued; they trust each other more when they are speaking face to face."