As an employer, you may think that, during this time of indefinite virtual work, the lack of a shared workspace would mean less bullying amongst your employees. With no common space to congregate, and with less colleague-to-colleague face-to-face time, the sample size for toxic workplace culture would have to decrease, right?
Au contraire. In an article published by Fast Company, author Stephanie Vozza discusses this topic with Janice Yancey, the founder and CEO of Emtrain, a “workplace culture organization.” Yancey explains how the exact opposite is true – that bullying and toxicity between coworkers has, in fact, been on the rise since telecommuting has become the norm for many companies due to COVID-19.
While on its face this may seem like a mysterious paradox, Yancey gives various reasons for the phenomenon. First, she explains, “Toxicity in the workplace culture flows from not investing enough time at the micro level and being deliberate about how we show up and interact with each other.” In other words, when employees all perform their work together in the same place, those in managerial, leadership, and HR positions can keep a closer eye on how employees interact with each other. They are also more readily available to speak with an employee wanting to discuss a work-related conflict or other toxic experience.
Second, Yancey points out that, in a virtual work setting, the information available to our colleagues about our personal lives has widened – thus, “broadening the view of what’s on the table to discuss between coworkers.” Decorations on the wall, family members entering the frame, and the cleanliness of one’s living space have now, for many employees, become visible to their colleagues during videoconference meetings. A well-meaning (or not so well-meaning) employee might use this information to make a joke or jab that offends their colleague.
Combined with most people’s heightened anxiety about the pandemic, such remarks carry even more weight than they would under normal circumstances. As such, says Yancey, organizations need to focus on putting up more “guard rails,” such as establishing language boundaries in team meetings and creating intentional protocols for what employees can do in the event that they experience bullying at work.
One of Yancey’s ideas for such protocols is “introducing a workplace color spectrum to report others,” where green is positive, non-adversarial language and interactions; yellow represents reactive, perhaps unintentionally offensive language; orange signals approaching toxicity; and red means a highly toxic interaction. When an employee wishes to report an experience they find to be toxic, they can use this scale or “spectrum” to interpret and describe it. Ideally, through increased usage, familiarity, and comfort with this system, it would shift from being one to use when reporting such experiences to a superior, to one that employees can use directly amongst themselves. For example, rather than telling your manager or HR contact person that an interaction with a particular colleague felt “orange,” the affected employee would say this directly to the colleague. This way, explains Yancey, employees can hold each other more accountable and feel safe when doing so.
Despite the challenges brought about by the shift to virtual work, Yancey maintains that it is, above all else, an opportunity. Many coworkers are getting a rare glimpse into each other’s personal lives. With the right structures, guidance, and boundaries in place, colleagues have a chance to develop a deeper sense of empathy for one another and have more intentional interactions with each other. The need for this is greater than ever as, with each passing day, we all face new challenges, uncertainty, and gloomy headlines. More empathy and intention can, in turn, lead to increased productivity, collaboration, and support amongst a more cohesive team.