Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, companies and their employees have increasingly relied on remote work options. While many employees welcomed the opportunity to work from home, others quickly discovered that working remotely comes with its own set of challenges. In fact, many of those workers have quickly found themselves in a toxic remote work environment.
In this post, we will explore how to recognize a toxic work environment when you are working remotely, and strategies to help you deal with the toxicity. We will also provide some links to resources that can help you to resolve your toxic work concerns.
What is a toxic work environment?
A toxic environment can come in many forms. Those forms can include the boss who always seems to avoid talking to you, co-workers who spend more time gossiping about each other than collaborating in a positive way, or unreasonable expectations from management and scant attention to burnout. As explained in the article Top 7 Signs of a Toxic Work Environment and How to Handle It:
“A toxic workplace is any work environment where the people, culture, and atmosphere are so negative that it disrupts the company’s efforts and even spills over into employees’ personal lives.”
Many of those workers experience frustration, depression, and a worsening of mental health. That can in turn lead to increased employee disengagement and even a higher rate of turnover. These effects carry over to employees’ home lives as well, as increased stress can affect their sleep, eating habits, and sense of physical and mental well-being.
What does toxicity look like in a remote work environment?
Thanks to increased reliance on technology, and the Covid-19 public health crisis, remote work has become an increasingly popular option for many employees. On the surface, this trend might seem like a positive way to counteract toxicity, since workers are separated from one another outside of the office. After all, distance should be an ideal solution to prevent poor interactions between staff – or so it would seem.
That does not appear to be the case, however. A May 2021 Wildgoose study found that nearly thirty percent of respondents reported breakdowns in working relationships and team spirit due to increased reliance on remote work. Other research suggests that about 56 percent of remote workers say that they have experienced toxicity in their jobs. While that is a lower number than the 63 percent of on-site workers who complain about a toxic workplace, remote workers can often feel as though they have fewer options to deal with that toxicity.
Before you can begin to address a toxic remote workplace, you must first learn to identify the signs associated with that toxicity. Those signs can include many of the same issues found in an office environment, as well as some that appear to primarily afflict remote workers. They include:
Poor communication between employees and management
This is a common feature of toxic office environments but can be even worse in a remote or hybrid workplace. Some managers are ill-equipped to oversee remote workers and may lack the skills needed to properly supervise employees that they do not see every day.
An increase in gossip and cliques
It may seem counterintuitive, but employees may be more inclined to band together in small cliques outside of a standard office environment, as they look for some type of interpersonal work connection. That can contribute to online gossip on social media outlets or via email – the very type of gossip that managers may struggle to monitor and quell.
Deteriorating attitudes among employees
Many employees have reported a rise in negative attitudes among their coworkers throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Part of that deterioration in attitudes is due to employees relying on phone calls and online messaging to communicate, which can prevent them from receiving information in its proper context.
When managers play favorites, office morale can be quickly destroyed. That can be an especially problematic issue for remote work if a manager tends to focus on a few employees who excel at working from home. They may end up receiving better assignments or more attention, simply because they are already adept at operating with little direct supervision. That can cause frustration for other workers who feel underappreciated or neglected.
An increased level of burnout
CNBC noted last year that more than two-thirds of remote workers reported burnout symptoms during the pandemic. Most of those workers claimed that they had been taking less time away from their duties than when they were in the office, in part because they feared that any time off might make them more vulnerable to being laid off.
For managers and other leaders who are unaccustomed to supervising remote workers, it can be easy to suffer from a lack of engagement. Leadership disengagement can quickly lead to more negativity among employees who feel abandoned and underappreciated.
For managers unaccustomed to remote or hybrid workplaces, the temptation to micromanage each employee’s activities can sometimes be irresistible. As remote work expanded throughout the pandemic, many companies have turned to various forms of monitoring to track their employees as they work from home.
One study found that 26 percent of human resource departments admitted to using remote monitoring tools. A report from June of 2021 suggested that monitoring is even more widespread than most employees know, with 78 percent of companies engaged in the practice. If your manager is constantly checking in with you or requires some form of surveillance (your computer’s camera or monitoring software, for example), that can quickly lead to toxic levels of negativity.
An increase in unresolved issues
When employees and managers see each other daily, it is far easier to focus on issues that need to be resolved. Remote work can make it easier for those issues to simmer without resolution, which can contribute to employee frustration. Worse, newer issues may be ignored by management when employees are not right in front them every single day.
What should you do when your remote workplace becomes toxic?
Given the harmful nature of toxic work environments, it is important for you to find ways to address your concerns should you find yourself in that situation. The following tips can help you to decide how to deal with your own toxic remote workplace and create a more productive and satisfying work environment.
1. Be proactive
Do not simply accept a toxic remote workplace and hope things get better. Without proactive engagement, these types of problems tend to get worse over time. As soon as you sense that your work situation has become toxic, you need to act to correct the problem.
2. Offer solutions to improve communication
If poor communication is creating negativity, reach out to co-workers and supervisors to offer solutions. Never just complain about the problem; instead, always be prepared to offer constructive ideas that can help to bring everyone onto the same page. If phone and email communications are causing confusion and discord, try to schedule regular video meetings.
3. Work to establish mutual expectations
Communicate directly with supervisors to establish a framework for feedback and other communication. This is especially important if remote work is a new feature at your company. Expectations need to be clearly defined so that everyone is using the same metrics for tracking success.
4. Develop your own work support group
Avoid social media forums where you might encounter workplace gossip. At the same time, you should work to maintain close contact with at least a core group of your co-workers – not to form a clique, but to foster and maintain teamwork.
5. Set clear boundaries to prevent burnout
To avoid burnout, you should resist the urge to feel as though you are always on call. Some managers may assume that remote workers are more accessible, simply because they are at their remote worksites all day and night. Speak with your supervisors and establish a clear schedule that aligns with your office hours. Let the company know that you will not be available outside of those hours, barring an emergency.
Keep in mind that there are also things that you can personally do to prevent burnout. In addition to setting the aforementioned boundaries, you should also work to create your own buffers to separate your work life from your off time:
Set aside time to walk or engage in other exercise either before or after work.
Listen to music, play with your pet, or spend time reading to help yourself relax.
Close down all of your internet tabs and programs at the end of each work day and shut your computer down completely. This not only eliminates the possibility that you may be drawn back to your work duties by the sound of incoming email, but can also be a way to symbolically shut yourself off from your job.
Engage in other hobbies and activities that ensure that your mind is preoccupied with something other than work.
6. Make use of your paid time off
If you are already experiencing burnout, it may be due to unused time off. Speak to your boss about your schedule and devise a way to ensure that you get the rest and time away that you need to continue to be a valuable member of your team.
7. Maintain contact with management
You cannot force your leaders to be more engaged, but you can reach out to them regularly. Do not wait for them to call or email. Instead, create your own schedule for regular communication – even if it is just to contact them and remind them that you are alive!
8. Find ways to be accountable without being micromanaged
If micromanagement is a concern, address it as diplomatically as possible. Work with supervisors to develop reporting mechanisms and processes that will enable them to know that your duties are being fulfilled as productively as possible. This can be done without surveillance software or cameras.
9. Seek remedies for lingering problems
If there are lingering issues that need to be resolved, propose solutions. For example, if there are personality clashes, task-oriented confusion, or differences in creativity or work style, it is important to not allow those issues to linger and divide your team. Chances are that your concerns are probably shared by others within the company.
Finally, be willing to recognize that there are times when you simply cannot fix a toxic work environment on your own. When your workplace becomes irredeemably toxic, you may need to start looking for a new job elsewhere. If you find yourself in that position, it may be time to dust off your resume and prepare to begin the job search process. When you need to quickly locate new employment, check out the article, How to Find a Job Fast: 10 Expert Tips.
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Toxic workplaces are not limited to office settings. In fact, recent reports suggest that there has been a dramatic rise in toxic remote work environments as more people have started working at home during the pandemic. These tips can help you to recognize the signs of a toxic remote workplace and take steps to alleviate that problem.
The ZipJob team is made up of professional writers and career experts located across the USA and Canada with backgrounds in HR, recruiting, career coaching, job placement, and professional writing.