By Wilhelm Crous
August 11, 2023
In a recent Harvard Business Review article Prof Mark Mortensen from Insead warned that if unchecked, certain hybrid/remote work practices can lead to toxic workplaces.¹ As a start Mortensen refers to Donald Sull’s five attributes of a toxic culture i.e., disrespectful, non-inclusive, unethical, cutthroat and abusive. He also stresses that toxicity carries a level of inescapability, which is part of what makes it so painful to experience at work. It should be noted that some behaviours may be toxic even as a result of well-meaning – or at least not ill-meaning actions.
How Hybrid work can lead to toxicity?
According to Mortensen, hybridity can lead to toxic businesses through four distinct mechanisms:
- Remoteness changes dynamics
People become more disinhibited and exhibit less self-motivation and self-control when communicating through technology. We are more likely to blurt out things that might be hurtful. In face-to-face interventions, we recognise the potential costs of a less careful word. When we speak our minds, we must check our words well. So, hybrid work can lead to a greater likeliness for disrespectful or abrasive comments to come out.
- Hybridity is fundamentally imbalanced
Hybrid also means different people are working in different contexts. People in the office have greater access to resources and higher visibility. This proximity bias can lead to quicker promotion for example. Remote workers often feel left out and shunned. The problem arises when some people (more likely remote/hybrid employees) feel constantly excluded and therefore disrespected.
- Hybridity can reduce cohesion and trust
Mortensen highlights that research shows that lack of close contact reduces connection and trust, which are key elements of a healthy culture. Remote working leads employees to have smaller, less well-developed networks. He also stresses that while people are less likely to exhibit toxic behaviours toward those, they feel close and connected to, the distance that a remote/hybrid environment brings makes us more likely to view some of our colleagues not as “us” but as “them” – and it is much easier to act poorly toward “them.”
- Hybridity makes it hard to resolve issues
It is harder to resolve disputes virtually. It is difficult to address a sensitive topic over Zoom or Teams. When we are face-to-face, we have more interpersonal tools at our disposal. We have better information. For example, we have more data and can read facial expressions and can see off-camera behaviours. Face-to-face interactions also allow us to synchronise work together to resolve differences.
What can leaders do?
The reality is that most employees still prefer a remote or hybrid work environment. Offering flexible work arrangements has contributed to an improved employee value proposition for the organisation. Against that reality, Mortensen advises leaders to approach toxic behaviours in hybrid work in four ways: Educate, lay a foundation, have ongoing conversations and intervene quickly.
Sit down with your employees and have a conversation about how these toxic behaviours can happen as unintended consequences of hybrid work arrangements and decisions. Remind them that toxicity is about behaviour and what matters is not what your intention was but how others perceive your actions. The goal is to increase employees’ self-awareness of toxic behaviours.
One of the most effective tools you can put in place is a culture with built-in antibodies against toxic behaviours. In particular focus on building empathy and psychological safety. A culture with a core of empathy encourages employees to consider the impact of their actions on their colleagues and building psychological safety ensures that employees can speak up about the behaviours they perceive as toxic.
- Have ongoing conversations
Mortensen, encourage hybrid teams and organisations to have periodic check-ins where everyone is encouraged to raise concerns or flag toxic experiences. Aim for a monthly check-in and adjust as needed. The more and faster the team or organisation changes, the more frequent these conversations should be.
A big problem with toxic environments is that they tend to get worse: Toxic behaviours either feed on themselves, breed more toxicity, or cause disgruntled employees to disengage, creating new tensions. So, you need not only to keep an eye out for toxic behaviours but also be ready to move fast when you see them.
While hybrid work does not necessarily cause toxicity any more than in-person work does, it is important to recognise that hybrid introduces some difficult situations which could breed toxic behaviours.
To further equip professionals with actionable insights and strategies in navigating the hybrid work environment and/or toxicity, we’ve scheduled two events this August and September.
The Hybrid/Remote Workplaces Conference will delve deeper into the nuances and best practices of maintaining a harmonious and productive remote or hybrid work setting. Concurrently, the Managing the Troublesome and Counterproductive Employee Seminar is tailored for leaders and managers, offering tools and interventions to promptly address and mitigate toxic behaviours.
Both events underscore the need for a proactive approach to work scenarios and offer a robust framework to ensure a positive and cohesive workplace culture. Don’t miss these opportunities to stay ahead of the curve and ensure your organisation thrives in this evolving landscape.
To find out more click on the links below:
Hybrid/Remote Workplaces Conference: https://tinyurl.com/29fzb94a
Managing the Troublesome and Counterproductive Employee: https://tinyurl.com/4kpcptzk
¹ Mortensen, M. (2023, July 28). Why hybrid work can become toxic. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2023/07/why-hybrid-work-can-become-toxic