What happens when toxic office behavior moves online while working from home

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When millions of U.S. office workers were sent to work from home in March to curb the spread of the coronavirus, employers did something few have done successfully at scale — they sent corporate culture home with them.

For several weeks in the spring, office professionals banded together to adjust to a new way of living and working online. But as weeks of remote work have stretched into months, it's becoming clear the toxic environment sometimes housed in office cubicles and shared break rooms is moving into workers' homes, too.

"If you work at an organization that has a toxic culture characterized by mean behavior, incivility, aggressive behavior and perhaps bad interpersonal treatment, that behavior and culture doesn't stay in the building," says Manuela Priesemuth, a professor of management at Villanova University. "When we talk about work culture, we talk about the employees' perception of 'this is how things are done around here: how we communicate, how we supervise, how we treat customers.'"

Toxic workplace behavior generally refers to when a person with some form of power, such as a manager, uses it to target another individual and cause psychological harm. This behavior can be blatant, such as instances of harassment or verbal abuse, though it can also be less visibly aggressive, such as being overlooked in the workplace or being subject to microaggressions. And unfortunately for workers, these actions are finding new ways to persist online.

One software developer who works for a tech company near Los Angeles, who asked to not be named for privacy reasons, says he's noticed increasingly antagonistic online behavior from peers and managers since March. Team morale has plummeted, he says, thanks to a combination of overwork, under-recognition and combative messaging from leaders that he doesn't believe would be tolerated in an office. He says he's constantly on edge in what used to be a friendly and collaborate workplace. "At this point I'm used to it," he says, "but I don't want to be."

CNBC Make It spoke with experts about how toxic office behavior is manifesting in remote work, and how both employees and leaders play a role in improving online work relationships during the pandemic — and beyond.

Office gossip takes a new form

A lot of information gets lost in translation in a remote work setting. When speaking in person, a listener perceives just 7% of a message through spoken words only, according to research from body language expert Albert Mehrabian; 38% of a message's impact comes from vocal cues, including tone, and the remaining 55% is nonverbal altogether.

"We're losing tone when we don't have that face-to-face experience, so that creates more opportunities for miscommunication and hurt feelings," says Dana Brownlee, a Forbes contributor and founder of the corporate training company Professionalism Matters. "It's easy to leave a call and feel, 'What's going on? They don't care about me. I'm not being listened to clearly. I'm not on the fast track.'"

And with a majority of remote interactions happening through written text, Priesemuth says shorter, time-saving messages can easily be taken the wrong way. "Incivility scholars have suggested that people who might be pressed for time and are short in interactions can be perceived as less courteous or rude by others," she says.

To reestablish intonation and body language signals, Brownlee says managers should check in with employees appropriately and try to use video or voice calls where possible.

Then there's the issue that workplace gossip has moved from office hallways to online chat threads, which has been a problem for the developer in LA.

It really brings down your morale when someone talks to you like that, because that means other people are probably talking about you in other conversations
LA-based software developer at a tech company

"I've noticed in meetings people will talk about each other in side conversations, or text them on the side in Zoom meetings and say things like, 'This guy has no idea what he's talking about,'" the developer says. "I'll admit I've been on the receiving and sharing end of these messages."

The gossiping issue crossed a line when his own manager came to him with disparaging remarks about another supervisor on the team.

"It really brings down your morale when someone talks to you like that, because that means other people are probably talking about you in other conversations," the developer says. He worries his own manager might speak negatively about him to other people at the company, rather than come to him with constructive feedback

"It's hard when all the managers are gossiping to each other, and there's no accountability," the developer says. "It's like cyberbullying — it's easier to say something behind the security of a screen and not have to deal with the confrontation. If you said that in person, you'd have to deal with the consequences."

Workers may be overlooked during remote meetings

While virtual meetings remove geographical barriers for professional connection, they can also widen the gap in who gets recognition during meetings. A recent survey from Catalyst, a nonprofit that works to accelerate women into leadership, found that 45% of women business leaders say it's difficult for women to speak up in virtual meetings, and one in five women say they've felt ignored or overlooked by colleagues during video calls.

"Because we're virtual, there's much more of a tendency to fall into the background, to not be seen or heard," Brownlee says. This can be especially hard if you work on a team where a handful of people naturally dominate conversations in a physical space. "If it's already harder to assert yourself in an office, it becomes extreme online."

In a remote setting, it's easier to make assumptions about people when they're not working right next to you, says Mollie West Duffy, a workplace culture expert and co-author of the book "No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotion at Work." If someone is fading into the background, it may cause others to assume they're dropping the ball or slacking off.

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To address the issue, West Duffy says peers and supervisors should check in with the employee from a place of empathy and curiosity as soon as something doesn't feel right. Ask: "Hey, I'm curious, I've noticed you haven't been taking part in meetings like you used to, and I'm wondering if there's something going on?" Remember your colleague could be dealing with personal challenges due to the pandemic, and you may be able to offer them support from a professional perspective.

Beyond one-to-one support, managers can better facilitate equity during meetings, Brownlee says. A meeting leader can start their time by reminding people to let others finish their thoughts, or set a rule that participants will remain on mute and should use a "raise hand" or "chat" function to signal they have a follow-up comment when the speaker is finished. Leaders can set agendas and speaking times for meeting participants and specifically encourage each individual to contribute their thoughts. 

"We need to be more intentional in terms of facilitation," Brownlee says. "Instead of throwing a question out to the group and having a free-for-all, maybe you throw out a question and say, 'We want to be sure we hear from everyone, so let's do a quick round-robin and go one by one. What do you think?'"

Managers can make work-from-home burnout worse

Concerns about job security, mounting household stress and a nonexistent separation of work and home life are some of the many reasons 68% of people report experiencing burnout while working remotely, according to a recent survey. Workers who feel burned out may go on to have negative interactions with others, such as being unprofessionally critical or leaving colleagues out of decision-making process in order to get something done faster. 

"Simply being drained and stressed or feeling depleted are strong predictors of aggressive behavior," Priesemuth says.

Manager expectations play a large role in setting work-life boundaries, Brownlee says. A leader can create a toxic environment if they demand employees be online and available beyond agreed-upon working hours, like late into the evening or on weekends. Managers may also come to expect more from workers who no longer have to spend time commuting.

Work autonomy has always been a strong predictor of employee motivation and productivity.
Manuela Priesemuth
Professor of management at Villanova University

And some employers are resorting to surveillance software to track worker productivity from their homes, something Priesemuth refers to as a "double-edged sword."

"There is evidence for both, such that monitoring can certainly reduce counterproductive behavior," Priesemuth says. "On the other hand, if employees' personal control and autonomy is too much constrained, it can be frustrating, and they start to act out, become more deviant from norms and standards to regain this sense of control. Work autonomy has always been a strong predictor of employee motivation and productivity."

Managers should let workers regain control of their time, West Duffy says. Leaders can communicate clear, reasonable expectations of when employees should be available, and they should also be careful about how and when they communicate these guidelines.

Instead of sending an email directive after hours, for example, draft the message and schedule it to deliver during the day. "Even if you say, 'you don't need to respond right now,' this person will probably feel pressure to respond immediately. Set tone for that," West Duffy says.

She recommends companies reiterate that workers should take time for themselves, such as by encouraging workers to set a flexible schedule to accommodate child care, log off for breaks during the day, or take paid time off. To that end, considering some 44% of workers with PTO didn't take any days off over the summer, West Duffy adds organizations may choose to give company-wide days off instead of leaving it up to individual choice.

In a toxic remote environment, allies become a crucial lifeline

Managers are often the first people to go to for issues of workplace conflict, Brownlee says. But toxic work environments are often created and exacerbated through leaders abusing their power. If that's the case, she says speaking with other supervisors you work with or escalating the issue to HR may be a better move.

If you're in a toxic environment, it beats down into your soul, and you need to find a way to feed yourself psychologically and emotionally.
Dana Brownlee
Founder of Professionalism Matters

When toxic behavior is a widespread cultural issue, Brownlee says allies both in your organization and outside can be essential to survive in an unsupportive professional space. She suggests seeking allyship such as senior-level sponsors who can provide longer career perspective or peers from a different department who can help you cope, stand up for mistreatment on your behalf and encourage you to speak up when possible.

"Allies can just be people you feel good around when you need to laugh and have a good time," Brownlee says. "If you're in a toxic environment, it beats down into your soul, and you need to find a way to feed yourself psychologically and emotionally. Maybe it's not someone on your team, but two teams over. Find someone you really relate to." She adds professional memberships or employee resource groups can be good sources of support.

With that said, "we also have to have the repair skills and stamina to advocate for ourselves," Brownlee says. "If you feel slighted, push back. Say, 'I'm sure you didn't mean to interrupt, but I feel like I didn't have the chance to complete my point.' I'm not saying that won't ruffle some feathers, but we can't control someone else's response or feelings. Maybe that's the first time they had someone call them out, and that can be part of some progress."

With the help of a trusted leader or allies, you might suggest that HR conduct larger employee surveys to acknowledge workplace issues and move toward addressing them "in the spirit of continuous improvement," Brownlee says.

While employee surveys and town halls can raise awareness of poor organizational culture, it's ultimately up to senior leaders to heed worker concerns and actually do something to improve upon them. Priesemuth's research suggests, when confronted with management issues, supervisors tend to want to improve their bad behavior if they believe it's hurting their image and if they see their employer take a stand for fair treatment.

Physical distance is welcome for some workers, but it can't fix everything

In some cases, being away from a physical office can be a respite from an unsupportive, toxic or abusive work environment.

In Liverpool, England, one medical doctor who asked to not be named to protect his privacy says his mental health improved once the educational setting where he worked became remote in the spring.

The doctor, who is Black and worked primarily with White colleagues, said he experienced racial microaggressions almost daily while in the workplace. "It was so bad, at some points I thought I was going to break down."

The lockdown was a welcome relief, but sooner or later, it will be over.
Medical doctor from Liverpool, England

Moving to an online setting helped. "During the lockdown, I experienced a tremendous reduction in aggressions. I attribute this reduction to the fact that most aggressors tend to be aggressive in private, without leaving any evidence and without witnesses. Now, the only way they can be aggressive is via an email or during Zoom meetings, both of which will provide evidence for or witnesses to their aggressions."

However, he says the microaggressions he felt from colleagues were a symptom of larger racial inequalities and discrimination in the workplace, and he realized the best solution for him would be to leave his employer altogether. He resigned in March.

"The lockdown was a welcome relief," the doctor says, "but sooner or later, it will be over."

Sometimes the best solution to dealing with a toxic workplace is to prepare yourself to leave, Brownlee says.

"You can do your part and you can certainly increase the likelihood your environment will improve, but fundamentally, your primary responsibility is to yourself," she says. In addition to speaking up about your current situation, you might also develop professional relationships, take training courses or get certified in order to move to a new job.

"Emotionally, it's healthier to put more energy focusing on yourself. As soon as we put energy into focusing on others, I think we lose, because we ultimately can't control what they do."

The Los Angeles-based developer is also considering leaving his job, citing a toxic environment where he doesn't trust his managers and feels overworked and undervalued. He has several months of savings and doesn't have dependents, but he is worried about facing one of the worst job markets in decades.

"I'm trying to weigh my salary expectations versus my threshold for toxic behavior at work," he says. "There are times I've considered telling my boss it's so bad, I would rather be jobless than continue to work like this."

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