An IRL office space can earn a toxic status when discriminatory and otherwise harmful practices become normalized or even embedded in a company’s culture. But that doesn’t mean the remote-working situations in which many workers now find themselves are immune to being toxic. In fact, organizational psychologists say the nature of a remote-working setup presents its own potential for becoming just as poisonous as an in-office one. So if you’re finding yourself frustrated by a troubling professional dynamic unfolding before you on email, Slack, Zoom, or otherwise, leading you to wonder, “What is a toxic work environment during the age of COVID-19?” well, it’s possible you might already be in one.
“In general, toxic workplaces are negative work environments that are destructive to employees’ psychological health and well-being,” says organizational psychologist Stephanie Andel, PhD. ” They are often characterized by factors such as excessive office politics, abusive and inconsiderate bosses, incivility like gossip, drama, and ostracism among employees, and a general lack of appreciation for employees’ hard work.”
Dr. Andel adds that, unfortunately, many of these problems only become exacerbated during a time when your boss might not necessarily register that you’re working longer days, or you can’t talk out a disagreement IRL with a co-worker.
We’re working from virtual cubicles that never underwent any planning process for transitioning from fully in-person to fully digital. This can open up workplaces and employees to new toxic features.
As we learn more about what it means to build a career from home given that the future may well include more online workplaces, e-office practices will become more solid and reliable. For now, though, organizational psychologist Daisy Chang, PhD, says that we’re working from virtual cubicles that never underwent any planning process for transitioning from fully in-person to fully digital. As a result, any “best practices” to follow are hard to come by, which can open up many workplaces to new toxic features, like a renewed lack of inclusivity, that employees may be unknowingly weathering.
Below, Dr. Chang and Dr. Andel address the five biggest signs that your remote office might be toxic—and exactly what to do if you suddenly find yourself feeling psychologically unsupported or gaslit by your job or co-workers.
What is a toxic work environment in a digital world? Here are 5 new indications of one, according to organization psychologists.
1. You are not provided with the resources you need to complete the work asked of you
Offices typically supply you with all the materials you need in order to do your job—things like printer access, private meeting rooms, and an internet connection. But these things didn’t necessarily come with you when you swapped in your cubicle for your at-home Ikea desk—and Dr. Chang says that can take a professional and psychological toll.
“Instead of the company providing fast and reliable internet connection for the employees to perform their tasks, those who have to work from home now have to rely on their own internet connection to perform their tasks,” says Dr. Chang. “Not everyone has equal access and/or can afford the fast connection demanded by some of the work tasks, which can cause problems.”
Ask your manager to provide you with the resources to which you don’t currently have access. If your internet access hardly has the bandwidth to function properly when you and your roommates all have Zoom calls at the same time, ask your boss to brainstorm a way for the company to take on the expense of better internet for you. Same goes if your job requires something like a scanner, or special access to a design program like Adobe that you might not have on your home computer.
2. Your boss assumes that you are available to work 24/7
Your boss hitting you up on the weekends is unacceptable—even when you might not necessarily have concrete “plans” (you know, those things we all used to put in our calendars). “By disrespecting your time and boundaries, your boss is not allowing you the opportunity to properly segment your work and non-work lives. This is especially problematic right now, as the pandemic has forced individuals to juggle multiple responsibilities at once—like taking care of sick family members, homeschooling children, and more—while also attempting to work from home,” says Dr. Andel.
“If your boss is not respecting your time boundaries, set a meeting to discuss appropriate time expectations that work for both of you.” —organizational psychologist Stephanie Andel, PhD
Bring up your boss’ questionable behavior to…your boss. “It is always best to directly address the problem at hand whenever possible. For instance, if your boss is not respecting your time boundaries, you could try to directly address the problem by setting a meeting to set appropriate time expectations that work for both of you,” says Dr. Andel. If the problem persists, you may have to set a meeting with their higher-up, or bring up the problem with human resources.
3. You are subject to electronic monitoring at home
“Many employers have begun to use electronic monitoring programs and apps to ensure that employees are remaining productive during work hours,” says Dr. Andel, who has published work on the importance of taking breaks to surf the web as a means of stress reduction during the workday. “This constant monitoring can feel like a violation of one’s space and privacy.”
Given that many companies have adopted this approach across many departments, you might not be able to bring this one up with your boss and get the result you want. (They’re likely being monitored, too.) In this case, you might need to take additional steps to monitor and regulate your own stress levels.
“Allow yourself to destress by taking consistent breaks throughout the workday, and try to set boundaries by turning off your work computer in the evening so that you are able to psychologically detach from work after the workday is over,” says Dr. Andel. Don’t feel bad about logging out of that monitoring software to stretch, take a walk, or enjoy your lunch.
4. You are being spoken to unkindly via work chat or zoom—or witness others being verbally abusive
It’s long been said that tone doesn’t translate well in digital communication—and a lot of us are confronting the reality of that like never before. “Unfortunately, people tend to say negative and insulting things through email or chat that they might not otherwise say in person. On top of that, the recipient of such messages often does not have the means to clarify any potential miscommunications. Therefore, the greater reliance on virtual communication can quickly be associated with more drama and gossip among employees,” says Dr. Andel.
Bring this up in your next touch-base meeting with your boss. If you don’t see them tackling the problem—or they, themselves, are the ones verbally abusing you—you will need to talk to HR. Dr. Andel says that, on a personal level, you can respond to people being unkind to others by staying out of the gossip yourself and creating positive opportunities—like virtual happy hours—for people to connect outside of work proper.
5. You feel left out or estranged from your team
“Such an abrupt transition to a virtual workplace has led to high levels of social isolation and loneliness. This is likely going to be worse if your boss fails to provide you with clear and consistent communications and updates during this ever-changing and stressful time,” Dr. Andel says. You may find out you didn’t make the list for a happy hour, got left out of a funny Slack group chat, or aren’t getting as much online positive feedback as your co-workers.
One simple solution is to plan fun, more inclusive things for your co-workers yourself—or make a point of touching base with everyone individually once a week. If you’re still not getting the connection you need, however, Dr. Chang says now is the time to lean on your family and friends—near and far.
“Seeking support from family and friends and engaging in positive activities with them, rather than venting about the work and ruminating about the negative events from work, will be helpful,” she says. Remember: Toxic or not, work is only a fraction of your life, not the full picture.
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