Covid brought toxic office culture online. Now we have to end it

Haley Tippmann

Sexual and racial harassment will move into digital workspaces during 2021, with work platforms destined to go the way of social media. Companies will have to introduce guidelines for online behaviour.
Working from home has blurred the line between professional and personal behaviour. There have been examples in which some employees have made offensive comments in their conversations with colleagues – and companies are finding these interactions hard to police. Combined with the stress caused by lockdown, this inaction means conflicts escalate and employees feel increasingly isolated.

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Discrimination by race and gender is a long-standing business problem, and my organisation, Project Include, has found that it has become a bigger issue in a number of online workplaces. In 2021, companies must provide training and guidelines for employees on what is appropriate behaviour, and what isn’t, when working on remote teams.
Exclusion of under-represented groups is already a problem in offices, but it is even easier to have side conversations in tools such as Slack, direct-messaging or chat functions. When communication is online, colleagues can’t tell that they’re being excluded, so they don’t know to ask to join and no one feels compelled to invite them. Tools make these online groups permanent and amplify the feeling and reality that many employees are “out of the flow” of the office.
The danger is that this exclusion will increase. People will become less aware of what is going on, less involved in decision-making, and encounter fewer opportunities for promotions and raises. People who are struggling will get lost, because no one will see that they need help. As we’ve seen in social-media platforms, lack of enforcement will cause negative interactions to continue, spread to other employees, ramp up in volume and increase in vitriol.
Companies with poor management skills will try surveillance methods, but as managers track employee time online and check in on them more frequently, many employees will feel uncomfortable, untrusted and unhappy. They will find ways to game the system, wasting everyone’s time and money. Companies will need to build trust in their teams and demonstrate that their wellbeing is important by treating them as adult enough to work remotely without constant oversight. The guidelines will have to reflect this atmosphere of trust and make a company’s commitment to it a reality.

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If not, HR teams will be dealing with multiple screenshots of inappropriate comments, offensive jokes and memes, illegal messages and ongoing exclusion – resulting in reduced output, poorer decisions and lower team and company performance.
Without guidelines, we will see non-core communication channels solidifying around political identities, and employees causing harm to co-workers who already feel isolated in companies that, despite their statements in support of movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, have done too little work to improve internal cultures.
In 2021, all companies will have to change the way their teams communicate and collaborate remotely to ensure they don’t just become another channel for the nastiness and harassment that is plaguing social media.
Ellen Pao is an investor and the CEO of Project Include
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