How remote work has changed discussing politics in the office

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With the U.S. presidential election just weeks away, political discussion is top of mind for many Americans, including among colleagues in the workplace. Back in February, a survey of 500 employees by the research firm Gartner found that 78% of people talk about politics at work, and 47% of people say the 2020 presidential election has impacted their ability to get work done.

In the eight months since, the election cycle, the workplace and daily life in general have transformed in countless unpredictable ways due to the coronavirus pandemic. And now that a widespread adoption of remote work has relaxed many workplace behaviors and policies, what does that mean for discussing politics in a virtual office?

Political conversations may be more intentional

In some ways, colleagues may be making an effort to have more meaningful political discussions in the workplace, says Roger Brooks, president and CEO of the educational non-profit Facing History & Ourselves.

"One advantage to being remote is that you have to be really intentional about your conversations," he tells CNBC Make It. "If you want to have a conversation, you have to go out of your way to have it."

"That intentionality can give you a moment before you start a complicated conversation to center yourself, and maybe your partner will as well, in a controversial topic," he continues.

And because you're more likely to enter a political workplace discussion more intentionally online, rather than riffing on the day's headlines with a coworker you ran into in the hallway, "some of these conversations might be better than when they were just happening in-person," Roger Brooks says.

Employers could play a role in encouraging respectful dialogue, says Dustin York, a communications professor at Maryville University who served as a consultant for Barack Obama's 2008 U.S. presidential campaign. HR leaders can send a company-wide note with guidelines about discussing political news in the work setting, or they may invite trained facilitators to lead a discussion about having difficult conversations at work.

Heidi Brooks, an organizational behavior professor at the Yale School of Management, adds that leaders would do well to encourage and model behaviors that support belonging and inclusion at work, which may be strained during the pandemic. "It still matters to be a team that people want to be a part of," she says, "and some of what makes a team one people want to be a part of is the quality of relationships among members."

One way to take a stance on the election that fosters belonging is to encourage employees to vote, Heidi Brooks adds. Initiatives including Time to Vote and Civic Alliance are non-partisan efforts to increase voter participation by helping workers register to vote, providing polling place information and giving employees time off to cast their ballots.

Discouraging political speech could backfire

Though companies may want to avoid encouraging discussion on controversial topics at work, statements from management that seek to limit political speech can backfire. In late September, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong faced backlash after he published a blog post in which he discouraged employee activism and discussing political and social issues at work. Pointing to what he referred to as "internal strife" among tech companies including Google and Facebook, which "engage in a wide variety of social activism, even those unrelated to what the company does," he wrote:

"While I think these efforts are well intentioned, they have the potential to destroy a lot of value at most companies, both by being a distraction, and by creating internal division," Armstrong said. "I believe most employees don't want to work in these divisive environments."

In response to the memo, more than 60 employees, or roughly 5% of Coinbase's workforce, accepted exit packages as of October 8, according to Forbes.

Messages like this could be impractical to enforce, says Vanessa Matsis-McCready, associate general counsel and director of HR for the HR service provider Engage PEO: "You can have a policy that all discussions at work must be work-related, but then you'll have a morale issue."

Furthermore, while workers don't have a constitutional right to free speech at work (except in the case of government employees who have some protections), workers may have some protections at the state level for political expression and off-duty conduct. In California, for example, employers are prohibited from adopting or enforcing any rule that prevents employees from engaging in political activities. And Oregon's Worker Freedom Act prohibits employers from forcing workers to attend political meetings and distribute political communications.

In other cases, political speech in the workplace may be protected if it relates to workers' rights to engage in concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act. This includes talking with coworkers about your working conditions, pay or benefits — for example, if you're discussing paid family leave and your support of a candidate proposing a policy at the federal level.

When politics enters the chatroom

Instead of attempting to limit political speech, Matsis-McCready suggests employers lay out clear guidelines about what is and isn't appropriate that are neutral and enforced uniformly.

The mass switch to remote work could be a good time to clarify these policies, she adds. For example, you may say overall that Zoom backgrounds must be free of prominent slogans and logos, including but not limited to campaign signage and merchandise. Matsis-McCready says her employer provides workers with HR-approved virtual backgrounds with the company's logo that can be used during video meetings. Leaders can reiterate if the same no-slogans rule applies to workplace attire during video calls.

For employees, keeping discussions neutral may be the best option if you don't have clear rules on political speech, Matsis-McCready says. Disciplinary action may not be out of the question if your conversation isn't about working conditions (and therefore isn't protected under the NLRA) and it extends beyond your personal break time to the point that it impacts the work you're expected to get done.

"My advice to employees," she says, "is to keep workplace discussions neutral. I'd want to make sure that if I'm discussing my personal beliefs, that it's on my own time — like a lunch break — and be mindful of the clock."

Another guideline: If you wouldn't have a certain conversation in the break room of your office, reconsider whether you're willing to have it in a work-provided messaging platform.

Focus on values rather than candidates

As protests and movements showed us over the summer, many workers expect their employers to speak out on certain issues when it comes to racial justice, and the role policy plays in social issues and equity.

York recommends organizations make clear their stance on certain issues, such as diversity, equity and inclusion, rather than discuss any one party or political candidate if it's not directly related to the work they do. It's the leader's role to set the tone and model expected behavior, he adds, and remember that tensions in the workplace are likely higher than normal due to circumstances of living and working through a global pandemic.

Individuals with more influence in the organization should be aware of how they're using their position to share information and engage others.

"If you're on the upper side of power, it's your job to reach down and listen to equalize your power whenever possible," Roger Brooks says. That includes being aware of power imbalances and whether people of dissenting views can speak openly in the workplace, facilitating respectful dialogue that assumes positive intent, and reminding colleagues that while they may view issues differently, they align in the ways they contribute to the health of the organization.

"Engaging really effectively and productively across difference allows people to better work together," he says.

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