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‘Be explicit about civility’: Working from home, companies increasingly combat toxic communication

  • Working from home is becoming the new normal during Covid-19.
  • 38% of employees have experienced toxic communication through digital channels, according to a recent survey.
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‘Be explicit about civility’: Working from home, companies increasingly combat toxic communication

COVID-19 has made working from home the new normal for many companies. As entire offices shifted to working from home, employees find themselves spending more time in video conferencing, including Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and other tools.

But new platforms bring new challenges. 38% of employees have reported experiencing toxic communication through these new channels of communication, including bullying and racist and sexist comments. That's according to a new study, conducted by Writer, an AI writing assistant for teams. The company conducted a cross industry survey of over 1,000 employees to explore how workplace communication has changed as a result of working from home.

With this new environment comes new ways for toxic behavior to manifest, said May Habib, founder and CEO of Writer.

“Now that so much of our communication is asynchronous and it’s in these new non-personal, non-live, non-real-life channels, it shouldn’t be a surprise that toxic communication has made it to those channels as well, and in many ways it’s actually made it easier for people to be mean to each other,” said Habib.

Like other disruptive behaviors in the workplace, naming what constitutes toxic communication is a good first step. Companies can fight toxic behavior by being totally open about what qualifies as appropriate behavior and what absolutely does not. “Be explicit about civility,” she said. “It is a value. Don’t tolerate aggressive communication.”

Oxygen Bank, a new challenger bank which now has more than 30 employees, uses a no-nonsense approach to toxic communication when it hires new workers.

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“Like most startups, we put a lot of thought into hiring and put a premium on enthusiasm for our mission and culture fit,” said Hussein Ahmed, founder and CEO of Oxygen. “To that end, we have zero tolerance for toxicity of any kind.” 

But even with the best employees, digital channels can still distort messages. And this can lead to misunderstandings. Lack of perceived body language is a major culprit here.

“[A] lot can be lost when you are typing something versus saying it in real life -- even on video, we’re looking at the shoulders and up,” said Habib. “We’re not seeing all of the body language. And so your message will always be read in the worst possible tone and intonation that it could be read in because that’s just human nature.”

Rho Business Banking, which has 27 employees, knows its way around remote forms of management. Most of the company was hired during the pandemic. Alex Wheldon, co-founder of the company, said he’s even more used to managing a team remotely than in person. “I don’t know any other way except [to] develop remote teams,” he said.

One way Rho has made up for lack of body language over remote communication is by assigning context to each communication tool used.

“We actually use a different tool for video conferencing within a team. And then we use another tool for outward conferencing,” said Wheldon. “So, [you] understand the context based on the tool you engage your team with. And it becomes like second nature.”

In addition to context, said Wheldon, it’s important to keep interactions organized. For Rho, this means “a consistency of meetings, keeping things semi-normal and understanding that [they] are going to check in everyday.”

But even these steps alone are not enough, said Wheldon. Empathy is important, too.

“You have to be very empathetic to your team. You also have to be mindful that they’re at home. You have to be mindful that it’s their space,” he said.

And for Oxygen Bank, empathy is translated into patience and openness to criticism.

“We are constantly soliciting feedback from both our customers and employees to better understand where we need to focus and how to best motivate,” said Ahmed. “It takes a lot of time but there is no substitute.”

Work-from-home options won’t go away after the pandemic, said Habib, so learning how to instill healthy communication both digitally and face-to-face is crucial for staying relevant post-pandemic.  

“The companies that can take the best of Covid work-from-home culture and the best of real life office culture,” said Habib, “they’re going to win the war for talent.”

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