Does working remotely make work less toxic?

Dec 13 2022 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

We are reading a lot about Return to Office and how it's critical to company culture that people get together. In fact, senior executives are telling us they are depending on it to maintain or create the culture they want. But what if your workplace culture is toxic? Does getting together help or make things worse?

The survey says…

A report released earlier this year by the consultancy Capterra, found something interesting. According to their survey, 70% of HR leaders say they received fewer complaints of toxic behavior since transitioning to hybrid or remote work.

This makes a lot of sense ion some ways. If the reason your workplace is toxic is that you sit next to Bob (and you know how toxic he is!) and now you're no longer sitting next to Bob, the toxic behavior has magically disappeared. Beyond that, though, there's some interesting data in the study.

Remote work and lower toxicity levels

Specifically, there are some key behaviors that many people consider toxic which seem to be positively impacted when people don't share the same space:

  • HR reports of toxic behavior at work are down significantly. This needs to be carefully interpreted, because it may mean toxic behaviors are down (nobody's fighting over stolen yogurt from the fridge) or it may just mean that because you aren't sharing space, and can simply mute the person and ignore them. The behavior is still there, it's just not worth reporting.
  • Employees agree that work is less toxic now: 38% of employees who have transitioned to hybrid/remote work have noticed less toxic workplace behavior compared to before the transition.
  • Only 13% have noticed more toxic behavior. More on this in a minute.
  • Bullying, racism, sexism, and gaslighting all see reductions. Well, complaints about them do anyway. Whether anything's changed is still an open question.
  • Technology is helping reduce toxic workplace behaviors. The "mute" and "out of office" buttons are powerful when wielded correctly.

It makes sense that if the toxic behaviors in question stem from physical proximity (unwanted touching, locker room talk, lack of respect for private space), then the less time you spend with your coworkers, the fewer of those problems emerge.

But are there other toxic behaviors emerging?

This raises another question: does working remotely create other kinds of dysfunction? Here are some of the complaints people have about their remote and hybrid co-workers:

  • Disappearing from meetings and projects This includes those who abuse the "do not disturb" and "out of office" notifications to avoid interacting with teammates.
  • A rise in inappropriate private messages ,chats and emails. According to SHRM, this is one of the fastest growing complaints in the workplace. You don't have to share a cube farm to be a creep.
  • Gossip and "the meeting after the meeting" are as destructive, perhaps even more so, in a virtual world where you aren't likely to be overheard.
  • Exclusion from group projects and tasks. This is particularly true in hybrid teams where people often default to their nearest coworkers, a sure sign of proximity bias
  • Lack of alignment between official policy and how managers really treat people. This is going to be a very big problem on hybrid teams. "Sure, the policy is you can work from home, but if you really cared, you'd be in here." This will (and already does) lead to accusations of favoritism and blocking career progress.

It's undoubtedly true that there are unwelcome workplace behaviors that will diminish the less time we spend together. But it's also true that "humans are going to be human," and when the way we work changes, so will the ways we annoy and undermine each other.

So if returning to the office is the right thing to do for your business, and it may well be, now is the time to make sure the return is an improvement over how you were working before. If there were problems before everyone left to work from home, you need to address them. Whether you're working together or working apart, you can't just magically remove toxic behavior.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.