Where to Draw the Line
It is possible, and desirable, to set reasonable standards for socializing in the workplace. Work should be fun — just not so much so that no work gets done. Here are some ways you can moderate workplace socialization:
Encourage socializing that is friendly and supportive. Use positive language in your dealings with employees to set the tone and example.
Discourage gossip and rumors. Establish a “rumor central” where employees can bring rumors to find out whether they're true.
Support collaborative efforts among employees on projects that warrant more than one participant.
Encourage employees to consult one another to share knowledge and expertise.
Provide opportunities for people to just talk, such as when the workday first begins or for a few minutes before meetings start.
If you don't draw the line somewhere, people will take advantage of your apparently laid-back demeanor. Here's an example of what can happen if things get out of hand.
Early in her career, Kathleen worked for a totalitarian boss who allowed no talking at all among employees unless to ask questions or share information that was strictly business related. Employees could talk about personal matters in the break room or at lunch. Kathleen swore that when she became a manager, she would have a “human” department. So now that she was, her department continually buzzed with conversation and laughter. Sometimes it got so loud that other managers came over to ask that employees settle down. Kathleen thought they were being a bit uptight; what was the big deal, as long as people were getting their work done?
But there was the problem: They weren't. Customers were complaining that no one was answering the phone; indeed, at times you couldn't even hear the phones ring for all the chatter and noise. Other departments started complaining, too — they weren't receiving reports and information on time or sometimes at all. Kathleen held a department meeting and told her employees, with obvious reluctance, that they needed to curtail their conversations and focus more on getting their work done. Everyone agreed to do so, but within a few days the noise was back to peak levels. Finally Kathleen's superior called her upstairs. The meeting was her last action as the department's manager.
Learn from Kathleen's mistakes, and always remember that while you aim to be a friendly manager, you aren't just a friend. Most people are willing to settle down to work after greeting each other in the morning. They will keep personal conversation to an acceptable level throughout the workday if this is the standard you establish by policy as well as by example.