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Is remote working making your employees ruder?

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Have you found casual rudeness and incivility has become more common within the workplace since the start of the pandemic?

Whilst working from home has brought greater freedoms to many as they navigate a greater work/life balance, for some it has also exacerbated rudeness at work.

The pervasive nature of rudeness can sometimes creep up on a team and, unfortunately, the biggest triggers have been heightened by the pandemic.

Burnout, emotional exhaustion, high workload and feelings of insecurity can all contribute to an increase in rudeness, according to a 2021 study by applied organisational psychologists at Portland State University (PSU). They analysed 76 research papers, covering more than 35,000 employees, and their findings go some way to explain the recent spate of bad manners.

More of a concern is that rudeness is also contagious.

“One of the biggest predictors of engaging in incivility is having experienced it yourself. So, even if someone is unintentionally rude, it can have a knock-on effect. Someone who receives an email they think sounds rude, then sends off a ruder one themselves. All this ambiguity makes experiencing incivility more likely. The next person perpetuates it, which creates this cycle.”

Lauren Park, lead author of the Portland State University study

Whilst rudeness is unpleasant, it also has more serious implications when it comes to productivity as it can make people worse at their jobs.

Nearly everybody who experiences workplace incivility responds in a negative way and it can escalate as some overtly retaliate. If rudeness in the workplace becomes systematic, employees also tend to:

  • behave less creatively when they feel disrespected
  • are more likely to leave a job
  • deliberately decrease their effort
  • lower the quality of their work

A 2007 Georgetown study Does Rudeness Really Matter? The Effects of Rudeness on Task Performance and Helpfulness found that those who experienced rudeness came up with 39 per cent fewer creative ideas and performed 33 per cent worse at problem-solving.

In times of crisis, creativity and problem-solving aren’t attributes employers want less of.

Virtual working hasn’t helped

As more companies settle into a hybrid working pattern that includes working from home as the norm, there are new routes to rudeness that companies haven’t had to deal with before. Typical examples include not being integrated to virtual meetings by others, particularly in hybrid meeting, or some participants being ignored or even purposely muted during meetings.

Especially large-scale video calls allow rudeness to develop between participants as many people can be still pretty socially inept while on camera.

Negative intensification bias

Whilst some of these examples seem quite low-level, perceptions of what colleagues mean, based solely on remote working interactions can become warped. And over reliance on email doesn’t help.

Negative intensification bias happens when a person reads negativity into messages that the sender didn’t intend, or they exaggerate even a hint of negativity. As human beings we are naturally prone to identify and dwell on negativity rather than positivity. Even in the most innocent of communication, email communication can be a minefield for perceived rudeness.

Will returning to the office help?

An easy solution could be returning to the office but that won’t be a quick fix. According to Larry Martinez, co-author of the PSU study, he states rudeness is likely to get worse when employees return because they’re out of practice being social and pleasant with their colleagues:

“People have gotten used to not having to engage in interpersonal communication as much and that can take an already distressing or tense situation and exacerbate it. These spirals that we’re seeing might be stronger in a post-pandemic world.”

Don’t despair

However, whilst rudeness is never pleasant, there are ways to decrease it and prevent it from having knock-on effects. PSU researchers found older colleagues were less likely to snap, and therefore less likely to engage in the cycle of rudeness.

Feeling in control of what we do professionally can also act as a preventative measure.

“People who had more opportunities to be autonomous during the work day, had control over their job tasks and how they did them, were less likely to reciprocate.”

Lauren Park

So, whichever way your company is working right now – remote, hybrid or fulltime in the office – more task autonomy can remedy the rudeness that remote working has exacerbated.

There are also other ways to model good behaviour and promote civil working practices. These include:

  • Manage yourself and your own stress levels
  • Ask for feedback from your colleagues
  • Pay attention to your progress
  • Hire for and role model civility
  • Agree on group norms within the team
  • Reward good behaviour and penalise bad behaviour
  • Conduct post departure interviews to identify root cause

Acknowledging the role of power dynamics within a team and the general climate in an organisation will also help individual leaders ensure that rudeness to not take over how the team works together.

We are interested to hear whether you have noticed an increase in rudeness within your organisation since the beginning of the pandemic. Are there ways you’ve managed to manage it and decrease it? Please leave a comment below.

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