Sunday Times

Of­fice smok­ers: the orig­i­nal smart net­work­ers

Chat­ting with fel­low smok­ers still the best way to get hot gos­sip

- By PILITA CLARK Addictions · Austria · Financial Times · Iceland · Belgium · Washington · Washington University in St. Louis · Belarus · Central Intelligence Agency · Soviet Union · United States of America · Russia · Russian Empire · Smoking · Aldrich Ames · Ames, IA · Ames · Langley · Ames Department Stores, Inc.

● On my way into work each morn­ing, I pass an unlovely con­crete spot at the back en­trance of The Fi­nan­cial Times where the build­ing’s last-sur­viv­ing smok­ers can still have a quiet fag.

It is years since I have felt the urge to join them, but I was up against such a nasty dead­line not long ago that I cadged a cig­a­rette from one of the few peo­ple I know who still smokes and headed out­side.

A man I had never met be­fore of­fered a light, and, as we puffed away com­pan­ion­ably, he started telling me about his job in some dis­tant part of the build­ing where peo­ple worked on con­fer­ences and events.

As I lis­tened to him chat about how ev­ery­one had been flog­ging them­selves to pro­mote a loom­ing con­fer­ence he feared would flop, an aw­ful thought be­gan to form: he was talk­ing about an event I was due to chair.

This was an in­stant, if bru­tal, re­minder of the value of smok­ing at work. It is one of the cheap­est and most ef­fec­tive ways of find­ing out what is re­ally go­ing on in the of­fice.

Ad­mit­tedly, it can some­times be too ef­fec­tive. I was work­ing in Wash­ing­ton in 1994, when the city was rocked by the ar­rest of Aldrich Ames, a CIA of­fi­cer who turned out to be a highly de­struc­tive Soviet mole who had be­trayed a string of US agents.

Ames was a ter­rific smoker. Pricey den­tistry to fix his yel­low­ing fangs raised early sus­pi­cions about his im­proved fi­nan­cial cir­cum­stances. But his smok­ing habit also re­port­edly helped him ob­tain use­ful in­for­ma­tion about CIA op­er­a­tions against Rus­sia — from desks that were nowhere near his own.

When he went out­side to smoke at the CIA’s Lan­g­ley head­quar­ters, he would gather with fel­low fag­gers in the agency and trade gos­sip.

This was an un­usu­ally lethal ex­am­ple of how of­fice smok­ing helps to boost the flow of in­for­ma­tion, yet it is also oddly rel­e­vant. As com­pa­nies grap­ple with dis­mal work­force pro­duc­tiv­ity growth rates, there is ris­ing in­ter­est in the ran­dom of­fice chat. In the­ory, the more peo­ple bump into each other and blather, the more likely they are to swap ideas, stum­ble on so­lu­tions and gen­er­ally be­come more pro­duc­tive.

Not that many years ago, a lot of this bump­ing hap­pened nat­u­rally.

Back in the 1990s, US of­fice work­ers told

It is one of the cheap­est and most ef­fec­tive ways of find­ing out what is re­ally go­ing on in the of­fice

re­searchers they spent up to 70% of their day talk­ing face to face with their col­leagues. This has clearly changed in an age of farflung, home-work­ing, phone-ping­ing work­forces. To­day’s of­fices are full of peo­ple star­ing at their screens at open-plan desks with head­phones jammed unso­cia­bly over their ears to block out noise. And far fewer, thank­fully, smoke.

Thus we are see­ing a num­ber of de­sign “so­lu­tions” to make work­ers col­lide with one an­other more of­ten, start­ing with the stairs. A big, wide stair­case that lets two peo­ple chat side by side is one idea ar­chi­tects are of­fer­ing to in­crease of­fice blather. This is fine if you are build­ing a new of­fice or can af­ford a new stair­case, but use­less for most of us.

An­other idea is sim­pler: a cof­fee ma­chine on wheels that can be strate­gi­cally shifted to lure dif­fer­ent teams of work­ers to the same spot to en­cour­age pro­duc­tive chats. I first heard about this from Ben Waber, an Amer­i­can I met last year who runs a com­pany called Hu­manyze that tracks the way peo­ple move around in the of­fice.

Per­son­ally, I like to know where to find a cof­fee each day. Be­ing forced to hunt around for a miss­ing ma­chine sounds tire­some.

I am in­debted to a reader for my favourite ploy: an of­fice beer fridge. A man from the US who has started and man­aged sev­eral com­pa­nies wrote to tell me on-site grog had sev­eral proven ben­e­fits. Ev­ery­one got to know each other quickly, he said, “from pro­duc­tion worker to the CEO”, and that made a big dif­fer­ence to the way they worked to­gether.

He in­sisted on cer­tain ground rules: no one could open the fridge un­til ev­ery­one in the build­ing could drink, and ev­ery­one had to be sure they could ei­ther drive home safely or get a lift.

My in­for­mant said he had never lost any pro­duc­tiv­ity with this perk. He plans to mea­sure if peo­ple are ac­tu­ally more pro­duc­tive when a beer fridge is present. I can­not wait to see the re­sults.

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 ?? Pic­ture: James Jarche, Daily Her­ald Archive/SSPL/Getty Im­ages ?? The Daily Her­ald ed­i­to­rial de­part­ment in the 1930s in a haze of smoke.
Pic­ture: James Jarche, Daily Her­ald Archive/SSPL/Getty Im­ages The Daily Her­ald ed­i­to­rial de­part­ment in the 1930s in a haze of smoke.

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