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Why the Work-from-Home Model Won’t Fix a Toxic Workplace

At the outset of the pandemic, there was a strong expectation that the whole work-from-home phenomenon would provide a respite from all of the stresses that come with working in an office environment.

The early days of remote work appeared to live up to those expectations. Freed from the stress of things like the daily commute and office politics, working from home seemed like the perfect solution. Initially, productivity surged. And for those working in a truly toxic office environment, it was a chance to avoid bosses and colleagues who create the feeling that we’re constantly under attack.

And then, reality set in.

We quickly learned that many of our assumptions about the nirvana of remote work were simply unfounded. New, pandemic-based stresses replaced some of the old ones we associated with the office environment. The tools we were employing to stay connected created as many problems as they were able to solve.

And most importantly, we learned that remote work is not an antidote for a toxic work culture.

That was certainly the realization one of my clients came to recently. In the middle of the pandemic, I got a call from a C-level leader who was concerned about the dynamics of a team of senior leaders he brought together just before workplaces were locked down. It was an impressive collection of executives, all of them boasting extensive technical knowledge and years of experience.

However, early on the leader started to realize there was a problem. Members of the team clearly did not trust each other. Open dialogue and collaboration were in short supply. Even though they were working remotely, there was an omnipresent friction that started to drain the team of its strategic and problem-solving energies. Work was simply not getting done in the manner that moved the team forward.

What started out as a promising initiative to make the company more agile and productive quickly turned into an episode of Survivor, with small groups of allies breaking off into cabals that worked to undermine each other.

Listening to the leader and others, I started to realize that not only was his team not benefitting from remote work, but the whole experience of virtual collaboration may be amplifying the problems that existed when teams were being formed or transformed.

It all started to make sense. Many of our assumptions going into the pandemic have been largely undermined by the fact that the social and economic restrictions that prompted remote work have gone on much longer than anyone anticipated. As our virtual work experience became more the norm and not the exception, stress fractures began to appear.

As I started talking to more leaders, a few fundamental issues started to come into focus.

Toxicity had manifested in many teams in a number of ways: passive-aggressive or aggressive communication (either through emails/texts or in video meetings); frequent off-hours communication often to criticize or even undermine team members; toxic leaders who take all the credit for successes and absolve themselves of any role in a setback; cliques that seek to exclude certain members of the team from key conversations; a lack of balance from increased demands and expectations at work.

Many teams have also suffered from the fact that, despite the dramatic increase in the frequency of texts and emails between team members, there were far fewer “detoxifying moments” of interaction: casual conversations; social events; the opportunity to tell a joke or an amusing family anecdote.

Like a safety valve, these moments help to de-escalate conflicts that may be brewing. Unfortunately, even though we’ve tried to use things like Zoom happy hours to replicate these important contacts, it does not have the same beneficial effect.

I started to wonder how I was going to help the leaders that I work with.

Although there are solutions for team toxicity, they are much more difficult to deploy in a virtual environment. Ultimately, I began to modify some of the solutions I would recommend to teams who were able to meet in person. While some were easily amended, others required a significant shift in approach by the senior-most leaders who oversee team dynamics and performance.

1/ Virtual should not mean less contact. In a virtual world, one-on-one contact between the senior leader that oversees the team and its members is more important than ever. Leaders need to connect with key team members one-on-one to find out if there are any problems. And it has to be done at much higher frequency; the twice-a-year performance review just isn’t going to cut it in the Zoom era. You need to reach out for quality time with key team members at least bi-weekly, and the entire team at least once a month. Make social interactions part of team meetings; make it part of the agenda every time you have a virtual gathering.

2/ Team members still need to know who they are working with. It is essential to set aside time for team members to share some personal details so they get to know each other. Does anyone have kids and are they home-schooling? Do team members have spouses also working from home? Are some being asked to care for elderly parents? Do they have any particular health problems to deal with? These may seem like mundane details, but they help to humanize the team members. Sharing personal information builds trust, which leads to less interpersonal conflict and better overall performance.

3/ Preach independent problem solving. You need to make it clear that the team must be chiefly responsible for problem solving.  Senior team leaders can provide oversight and feedback, but it’s essential that your team can focus on finding its own solutions. A team that is constantly asking a senior leader to mediate disagreements or choose from a range of solutions is a dysfunctional team. Independent problem solving is the hallmark of a healthy team.

4/ Problems need to be fully aired. Good teams do not hide from their setbacks or flaws. But to do that, they must be in a space (even a virtual space) where people can talk openly about problems without fear of reprisal from colleagues. Some of this can be accomplished in the one-on-one sessions mentioned above. But at some point, team leadership needs to create a safe environment for team members to speak openly about problems. Set aside time in every meeting specifically to discuss setbacks or mistakes and what could have been done better. A truly safe team environment is one where everyone can discuss each other’s mistakes without fear of recrimination or embarrassment.

It is important to note that in some instances, a team can only become better by removing one or two members, or even a team leader, who are particularly toxic. Overall, however, most teams do not require invasive procedures to go from dysfunctional to functional, or even good to great.

In this topsy-turvy world of work that we all find ourselves in, all that most teams need is a focused, methodical effort to build the healthy interpersonal relationships that are the foundation of all great teams.

©2021 VCR Consulting Group