Keyboard battles rage in new work-from-home culture

When everyone is a user name, harassment and bullying get bolder, and off-colour humour starts becoming common

Office conversation at some companies is starting to look as unruly as conversation online.
Office conversation at some companies is starting to look as unruly as conversation online.ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

(NYTIMES) - Welcome to the dark side of working from home.

Mr Gustavo Razzetti, who gets hired by companies to improve their work cultures, has noticed a change since the coronavirus pandemic began last year: more political brawls, more managers losing control of their employees, a curious mix of hyper-engagement and lack of empathy.

"Employees are turning their cameras off, hiding behind avatars, becoming disrespectful," said Mr Razzetti, whose consultancy is called Fearless Culture. "They're being aggressive with one another."

Office conversation at some companies is starting to look as unruly as conversation online. And just as people are bolder behind keyboards on Twitter, they are bolder behind keyboards on workplace messaging platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Slack - with all the good and all the bad, but with a lot more legal liability.

Work culture experts say the steps companies can take before lawyers get involved include monitoring large chat groups, listening to complaints, reminding employees they are on the job and not bantering with friends, and being aware that a move to a virtual workforce can expose new issues like age discrimination.

This is the first time colleagues have had to come to terms with working and socialising almost entirely online. There is likely no going back: 67 per cent of companies expect working from home to be permanent or long-lasting, according to a study by S&P Global, which provides financial analysis.

"At the beginning of the pandemic, everyone patted themselves on their back, like, 'Oh, look, productivity has not fallen. We've transitioned to digital. We've done things we were seeking to do: streamline processes, move things online, decentralise decision-making'. But they were forgetting about culture," said Professor Jennifer Howard-Grenville, an expert in organisation studies at the University of Cambridge. "Now the reality of that has hit."

When message boards, chat rooms and Facebook are the new work tools, off-colour humour becomes more common. Aggressive political discussions that would be out of place among cubicles now seem fine.

The hierarchy of physical space disappears when everyone is a username. Confronting senior management does not require a walk and a knock on the door, and confronting colleagues does not require sitting next to them the rest of the day.

"I've seen bullying by text in the various kinds of internal instant messenger (IM) platforms, and we've seen an uptick in those kinds of complaints coming our way," said Mr John Marshall, an employment and civil rights lawyer. Harassment from colleagues in internal messaging platforms is not new, he added, but now there is more of it.

Mr Razzetti has a protocol for emergency work-chat situations.

First, he shuts down the problematic Slack channel. Then he breaks the team up for an intervention. Colleagues are asked to reflect alone.

Next, they can meet another colleague one on one to share their feelings, then in groups of four.


ST ILLUSTRATION: CEL GULAPA

Finally, those small groups can begin to reintegrate into a fresh Slack channel.

Some of the professors and consultants recommend simple solutions: taking turns to talk or post in meetings, requiring silent time to read something together during a video meeting before discussing, and giving workers 90 seconds to vent about politics before beginning a politics-free workday.

"We have people fighting like teenagers online at work," Mr Razzetti said. "This can be a very serious thing."

So the recommendation from professionals is, basically, to treat all of us as if we were teenagers who had been fighting online.

As with anything that involves workplace communication - particularly workplace conversation in text form - there are legal liabilities. There is a big legal difference between a troll with an opinion who is an Internet stranger and a troll with an opinion who can contribute to your performance review. People could sue if they believe they are being harassed.

Anyone with an eye towards preventing legal liability knows: Text is dangerous. The fact that workplace discussion now happens in online chats is a nightmare for legal teams.

"You need to be sure you're not writing - documenting - anything that's going to wildly offend people," said Mr Leslie Caputo, whose title is people scientist at Humu, which makes workplace culture software. "For the millennials, the first age to grow up with IM, we're so used to having our predominant interactions this way, it can be hard to remember that this is a workplace with different rules."

Lawyers are starting to see more complaints. Some of the risk involves how casually people interact on the online platforms, which are built to encourage casual interaction. However, friendly banter to some can be evidence for litigation to others.

"Now, if someone's experiencing a hostile work environment, it's going to be written out," said Ms Christina Cheung, a partner with Allred, Maroko & Goldberg who focuses on harassment cases.

An employment discrimination law firm, Phillips & Associates, recently published this blog post offering its skills: "If you've suffered discrimination or harassment in a virtual meeting, don't wait… reach out to an experienced New Jersey workplace discrimination attorney today to discuss your legal options."