Workplace banter good for morale, productivity

"I want people to enjoy coming to the office and working. I want them to get things done, and I don't think the two are mutually exclusive," said Marty Kotis, chief executive officer of Kotis Properties Inc., a Greensboro, N.C., commercial real estate development firm.

"I'm not a micromanager. I have a goal, they have to do it. If they want to relax along the way, that's great," he said.

Staffers who stop working to talk about sports or politics are not much different from those running the office Super Bowl pool or who are doing some Internet shopping or e-mailing. Such activities are all distractions that company owners should accept as part of the workplace, as long as staffers don't abuse the privilege.

Trying to clamp down on employee conversations can create an atmosphere that's unpleasant, even oppressive.

"You don't want to have an inhuman workplace," said attorney Jonathan Segal of Philadelphia-based Wolf, Block, Schorr and Solis-Cohen LLP.

The camaraderie that comes out of workers sharing a little fun, meanwhile, can go a long way toward their feeling that they're part of a team. It's well-known that when staffers are happy, they work better.

But let's say the talk is running on a little too long, and you're sensing that productivity is being hurt. Raise the issue at a staff meeting, or send e-mails to the employees who aren't getting their work done, suggested Bob Burbidge, founder of Genesis Consolidated Services Inc., a Burlington, Mass.-based provider of human resources outsourcing.

Don't use a verbal sledgehammer, however. A firm but friendly reminder that work needs to be the first priority is a better approach.

"You just have to kind of raise the level of awareness a bit, and try to keep it so we can respect each other's time," Burbidge said.

And, he said, don't chew out someone publicly. If you need to tell staffers in person that they're overdoing the chatter, do it privately to avoid humiliating them and making everyone else feel uncomfortable.

If their productivity continues to suffer, then you're dealing with a performance and possible discipline issue.

If you really do need staffers to focus on their work and not talk -- for example, if they constantly need to be on the phones taking orders or performing customer service -- you might want to consider an entirely different tack. Set aside some break time, or time for an companywide lunch or Friday afternoon party. Let staffers know that's the time when they can chat about the Super Bowl, or whatever they're interested in.

Burbidge said his company has such gatherings weekly, and they help foster a good work atmosphere.

"We get the work done and then we'll play," he said. "It works well and it brings different departments together."

Sometimes, what's being discussed can inflame staffers' tempers. Politics and religion are two of the topics that can get an argument going. In that case, a business owner really should ban such talk.