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The “virtual watercooler” email cliques?

23 June 2009 Leicester, University of

New research at the University of Leicester is examining the impact of ‘email cliques’ – the equivalent of people who gather around the office watercooler, though this time in the virtual world.

The study in the Centre for Labour Market Studies explores the somewhat unknown ‘virtual watercooler’. Comparing email cliques to the stereotype group around the watercooler, David Freke explores the phenomenon.

“The groups that gather around the office watercooler for a chat is a well-known organisational phenomenon, as is the suspicion engendered in those who are not insiders in these groups. 

“‘Insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ in organisational groups participate in complex webs of relationships, and for the most part people know where they fit in. Email, however, offers the potential for the development of groupings that are invisible to everyone except those on the inside.”

Postgraduate David Freke explores this email ‘virtual watercooler’ phenomenon through a deep ethnographic research technique that uses email to create the kind of group of participants – insiders – that is the subject of his research.  By this method participants can report their experiences reflexively, raising issues that are of importance to them. 

“From my research, some startling findings emerge that have profound implications for organisations’ self-image and their professed values and culture.

“For example, an organisation that through its professed values claims to ‘respect and include every individual’ can, through its email cliques, appear to be more concerned with excluding anyone who is perceived to be a threat, or appears to be different.

“Anyone who is concerned with organisational values and culture should be concerned about the groups that form within their organisation’s internal cyberspace.  In that shadowy world, something will be going on.”

David Freke will be presenting his research at the Festival of Postgraduate Research which is taking place on Thursday 25th June in the Belvoir Suite, Charles Wilson Building, University of Leicester between 11.30am and 1pm. This event is open to the public and is FREE to attend.

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