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Water cooler chats can raise productivity

Bosses shouldn't frown when employees chat around the water cooler about their kids or extend their coffee breaks to rehash last night's hockey game, a new study suggests.

Those informal minutes spent reliving good things happening outside the office can actually help people to work more effectively, according to a new study by Charlice Hurst, assistant professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Western Ontario.

"Most managers tend to look at personal conversations among co-workers as a waste of company time," she said. "But time spent in this way can boost people's happiness with their job, and benefit the organization."

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The study of 130 employees in a range of careers, from sales to management, measured their level of enthusiasm and positive feelings about their work after interactions with co-workers. Each day for five days they were asked what was the most positive thing they had done, whether they had shared that experience with other people at work, and about how their co-workers responded.

Prof. Hurst found that good news happening outside the office in itself did not lead to improved job performance, but a positive response from co-workers did.

"Getting a supportive response from someone at work is more direct and unexpected than if you told someone in your family," Prof. Hurst explains. And that influences how you feel about your co-workers.

"When you receive an enthusiastic or encouraging response from your co-workers, you will be happier with your job, and this will tend to lead you to act in ways that benefit the organization," she said. For example, you might go to some trouble to help out another co-worker, defend the company against criticism, or even volunteer for an event to build employee morale.

"The results should prove to employers that it can be a good idea for employees to take a break and talk with co-workers about personal experiences that matter to them outside their jobs," she said.

"Obviously, that is not so helpful if they're standing around grumbling about what's going on at work."

The results appear in the November edition of Impact, the monthly online research publication of the Richard Ivey School of Business.

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About the Author

Wallace Immen is an award-winning staff writer for The Globe and Mail whose stories about workplace trends and career advice, as well as about cruising and travel destinations around the world appear regularly in print and on-line. He has worn many hats in his career with the Globe, including science writer, medical writer and columnist, urban affairs reporter and travel writer. More

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