When COVID-19 mandated hybrid work to curb the deleterious effects of the pandemic, it also smashed through the notion that remote working was unsustainable. However, whilst there are no doubt certainly advantages of a flexible virtual working environment it can also have some unintended insidious aspects when compared with the traditional office arrangement.
Our January 2022 Insight expanded on our client’s feedback about how they adapted and were able to navigate through the new working environment. Many have reported elements of increased investigations and grievances involving employee claims relating to performance concerns or colleague rivalry. This seems to be an understandable consequence with virtual platforms as our primary means of connection rather than visual cues. We have all had trouble in discerning intent from text stripped of tonal cues. The virtual work environment can amplify communication misunderstandings and in doing so, it can also serve to amplify power imbalances within the workforce.
These formal (and often informal) power imbalances which can open themselves up to employees either not reporting perceived inappropriate behaviour or being left unchecked due to a lack of bystander intervention in a remote work environment. Ensuring that this aspect is not ignored has been a focus in Appropriate Workplace Behaviour training we have delivered for clients.
The pandemic has also been particularly difficult for new employees who never got the opportunity to absorb an organisational cultural buzz or establish support networks which promote belonging and attachment. Integrating new employees and providing them with the initial roadway to success can be quite fractured in a remote environment as it arguably harder to monitor their initial understanding of work processes and understand the context for the activities that they are undertaking. Being understanding of an employee’s personal circumstances has never been more important as hybrid workplaces generally don’t allow for fluid check-ins and face to face feedback.
In fact, with employees being somewhat isolated in their home environments it has become more challenging for managers to ensure that they are set up for success or more importantly feel psychologically safe at work. It is arguably more difficult for employees to report harassment and for organisations to detect inappropriate behaviour. Inappropriate workplace behaviour isn’t new, but the parameters of what is deemed appropriate can easily become blurred when working remotely.
Being largely unmonitored, remote work can make it easier for some employees to exert power over those who were comparatively vulnerable. That’s because the channels through which remote work occurs — text, phone, video — are often unmonitored, and unrecorded even if they occur on employer-sponsored platforms. Complicating things is the air of informality around workplace communication, which increased with the shift to remote work during the pandemic. With remote working from home, managers cannot probe deep into the home to ascertain if discrimination is occurring. This means that organisations will have to rely upon the employee’s complaint of discrimination or harassment to ascertain if a policy breach has eventuated.
Taking this one step further, knowing that that no one is watching can embolden risk taking behaviour. An in-person office environment with colleagues present provides constraints and can be a source of protection if people are trained, empowered to step in. But working from home deprives us of witnesses to an event and in some cases the necessary evidence to investigate a complaint.
Workplace or Home: An Intrusion?
There can also be an increased sense of informality when colleagues are working from their own homes, without the physical and social constraints of the office environment. Gone is the separation between physical personal spaces and professional work. A confronting discussion with a manager can now take place in one’s living room blurring the lines between the safe ‘home’ environment with the work battleground. Whilst the work commute can be an efficiency drain it also encourages an employee to decompress and allowing a restorative transition to their ‘home’ identity.
Reporting compliance was a challenge before the pandemic; now it’s much harder with virtual platforms being our primary means of connection. How can organisations respond to this change in the workplace dynamic and ensure that psychological safety is maintained?
To start with, a good remote harassment policy ought to include an expansive definition of what harassment is and looks like at work which incorporates behaviour relating to the virtual environment.
Next is establishing the channels through which an employee can report, and a clearly defined procedure to follow if a report comes in. Investigating complaints in a remote setting adds another element of difficulty as it may be hard to establish rapport in a virtual interview or absorb the unspoken cues.
Knowing that many employees will not report, management ought to embrace proactive procedures as well. This ensure that behaviour is dealt with even if it doesn’t yet feel egregious. By providing the skills and confidence for employees to address things early and in an informal manner, it can help to nip any negative conflict in the bud before it becomes a significant issue or detracts from an employee’s individual performance. Services like Ombpoint, which equip employees with the skills to address workplace conflict early, are invaluable in reducing the incidence of complaints.
Listening to your employees is critical to making hybrid work a success. Be sure to keep an open line of communication with your people as you’re thinking through changes to the workplace that may impact them. Employee safety in the virtual environment can be more tenuous than merely identifying physical risks such as an adequate workstation set-up. By proactively engaging all employees to report conduct even if it doesn’t relate to them specifically ensures that there are more beacons rather than bystanders in their virtual workplace environment.
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