Every day, it seems like another big company has demanded employees return to the office, even though they committed to being fully remote or hybrid just a year ago. Many employees changed their lives based on this commitment—some moving to be closer to family, some living the wanderlust life, and others choosing to start families.
These are big commitments that employees have made based on the decisions of their employers—and now they’re being told, “Just kidding! Figure it out because we need you in the office, or you don’t have a job.”
This is bad. It harms an organization’s reputation, and it demoralizes morale. Not to mention, recruiting talented people is challenging in today’s world. I know for sure that if I worked for a company, I would 100% leverage the fact that I wanted to work remotely in every interview I had.
The Big Boss CEOs are all over the airwaves and the internet saying you can’t have an engaged culture if you’re not in the office full-time together. Some even go so far as to say that you can’t hustle if you work from home. And others are touting a toxic environment for those that have a hybrid schedule.
What Causes a Toxic Work Culture?
A few weeks ago, Harvard Business Review published an article about how hybrid work can become toxic. Yes, absolutely, it can become toxic. Any type of work environment can become toxic if the culture is disrespectful, noninclusive, unethical, cutthroat, and abusive while also being pervasive and ongoing. But it has nothing to do with being hybrid. It has everything to do with leadership and what is (and is not) allowed.
I recently produced a podcast episode for a client. They hosted Dr. Tiffany Slater, the CEO of HR TailorMade, who talked about how to handle political division in the workplace. While the discussion was not focused on toxic cultures, she said that allowing people to be offensive in their political views will create a toxic environment.
She said something that will always stick with me: “If you ignore the conversations, you are allowing them.”
That causes a toxic environment, not the fact that it’s hybrid, fully remote, or even in-person. It’s what leadership does and does not allow.
Instead of looking at how hybrid or remote work can lead to toxicity, let’s look at the actions—or nonactions—leaders take that lead to it.
People Put Things In Writing They Shouldn’t
Fourth grade for my little one was rough. There was a little boy in her class whom she has had a love/hate relationship with since they were four years old. He’s not very nice to her, and we’ve spent a lot of time coaching her on how to handle him during class and at recess.
Toward the end of the school year, she’d had enough, and she wrote a note to him that said, “I hate you.” It, of course, got confiscated, and she got in trouble for it. When her teacher told me about it, I’ll admit I had to stop myself from laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. This little boy had tortured her all year—including slamming her fingers in a window and trapping her inside a toy chest—but she got in big trouble for writing the note.
She shouldn’t have written the note. I’ll give them that. And she was fed up.
After she got punished at home, I said to her, “I’m going to tell you something I tell our clients all the time: never, ever put anything in writing that you don’t want to come back and bite you later.” I told her that if she can learn that lesson now, she’ll be much further ahead than her peers when she enters the working world.
That’s because most adults haven’t learned that having hard conversations over text or email can create a toxic culture. We tend to put things in writing we would never say to a person face-to-face.
If you aren’t willing to have the conversation on Zoom, on the phone, or in person, it should not be put in writing. Write the email if you must. But don’t send it. Let it sit overnight until you feel better, and then delete it. And have the hard conversation.
Leaders should encourage their teams to have conversations face-to-face as often as possible. We have the technology today that allows us to do that without having to sit across from one another in the same room.
People Will Gossip If Allowed
Many leaders who have demanded people come back to the office have eschewed that trust has been eroded because their colleagues are not together in person.
Trust is eroded because leaders allow people to behave badly without consequence. As Dr. Slater said, even ignoring bad behavior gives it a place to continue.
My guess is that the organizations (like mine) that start as a remote-first culture have figured out how to build trust among teams that aren’t together in person. The organizations that went remote because of the pandemic and then hybrid because employees demanded it likely have a tougher time with this. But it’s not impossible.
We worked with a CMO who, in my mind, is one of the smartest marketers on earth. We were working with the client when he was hired, and one of the first things he did when he started his job was to ask people to turn off Slack while they were in meetings.
He did this because he quickly discovered that people were not paying attention in meetings and were messaging one another about other people in the meeting—creating unnecessary gossip and making people uncomfortable.
It was not met with joy. People were very unhappy to have to do this, but it ended up working. Morale improved almost immediately, and we watched trust begin to build. He wasn’t afraid to make a hard decision and make people mad because he knew it was going to work in the long run.
To this day, that client team is one of the closest-knit group of friends I’ve ever seen on the client side.
He could have let the behavior continue and watched morale and trust continue to plummet. But he didn’t. He was a leader—through and through.
How to Improve the Culture
My organization has been fully remote since 2011, when we were slow to recover from the bottom falling out of the economy, and we had to give up our fancy (expensive) lease in downtown Chicago. We’ve certainly had our ups and downs throughout the years, but the culture has never been called toxic.
If your culture is toxic—or you are watching a client’s culture fall apart—the communicator’s job is to help the leadership team understand it’s their job to fix it. There isn’t an easy answer, particularly if morale and trust are eroded. It takes time, hard work, and patience. And the answer most certainly is not requiring everyone to get back to the office so that, magically, everything is fixed.
It can be done if you’re committed to a hybrid or remote environment and want to avoid all the challenges the Big Bosses are touting in the media.
This isn’t a one-time conversation about fixing the culture and morale. It’s an ongoing process that requires everyone to participate in.
Just like the CMO did with cutting off Slack access during meetings, it was about changing the habits that were creating toxicity and even microaggressions. Trust me, you can tell if someone is texting someone else in a meeting. Just watch people’s faces. You know. Everyone knows. And the people who are left out feel bad. They start to obsess over whether or not they’re the subject of the side texting.
This is bad behavior, and pretty much everyone does it. I always watch employees during client meetings, and 99% of leaders allow it to happen.
When the CMO we worked with shut off Slack access, he explained why. He had to work with HR and have lots of meetings about how unfair it was. He was expecting people not to multi-task, which was (in their minds) the only way they would get their work done and attend meetings.
He stood firm, though. He listened to everyone’s gripes and let them air their grievances. And then he explained that he believed shutting off access during meetings—and sometimes calling out people who were clearly emailing or texting—was going to rebuild morale.
And he was right.
He wasn’t popular. In fact, most people complained about him constantly in his first 90 days. And then they saw the positive changes he was having.
It wasn’t easy work for him, but he did what every leader should do. He fixed the problem, and he rebuilt culture and trust.
Create Psychological Safety
I will admit that I haven’t always been the best leader. I came from a pretty toxic environment where everyone was expected to bill 40 hours a week and then do 20 hours of new business on top of that, not to mention all the administrative work, such as time sheets and expense reports. I easily worked 80-100 hours a week.
I thought that was how things were done in the agency world, and so, when someone complained about their measly 37.5 weekly billable hour goal, I would roll my eyes and tell them to toughen up. I didn’t have a lot of empathy, and I most certainly didn’t create room for psychological safety.
I’ve grown in my leadership abilities. I’m certainly not perfect, but I’m better. And I’ve insisted that my leadership team not roll their eyes or gossip about our colleagues, which I’m ashamed to admit used to happen quite a bit. We definitely had the attitude of, “Well, we did it. You won’t die. It’ll teach you some things.”
I had to do a lot of work to stop that behavior—and even had to let a couple of people go who wouldn’t change.
Now we focus on a culture where you are free to discuss when and where you see toxic behavior, and we do something about it. But I will tell you from deep experience it is not easy to change that kind of behavior because, in some cases, it’s societal. You must do it anyway, even if it means losing an otherwise fantastic team member or having to be the bad guy for a few months.
Create psychological safety.
Have Ongoing Conversations
The last thing you want to instill is ongoing conversations where people feel safe to bring up issues. You want to encourage them to raise concerns or flag toxic experiences.
As you’re going through this growth period, you should have scheduled and consistent check-ins. You can add it as an agenda item to your weekly one-to-one meetings (and ask your direct reports to do the same) or you can do it as a one-off meeting every month (weekly may be too much).
However you choose to do it, the point is to ensure the psychological safety foundation is set so people are comfortable with bringing issues up so you can fix them.
As Dr. Slater said, “If you ignore them, you’re condoning them.” Don’t ignore issues. Fix them.
The Culprit Is Leadership
The work environment is not what causes toxicity. Those leaders who say you have to be in person to get anything done are really saying they don’t want to do the hard work to create a culture in a different environment than they’ve had their entire careers.
It is hard work. It takes self-awareness and high emotional intelligence. But it can—and has been—done.