Can a Remote Workforce Be a Toxic Workforce?

Unpleasantness isn’t limited to in-person interactions, as nearly all of us can attest by now. Who hasn’t gotten a snippy, or downright nasty, work e-mail from a business associate or colleague? It should be no surprise then that remote, entirely virtual workforces can be as toxic as in-person workforces.

Forbes tackled this topic a couple weeks ago in an article by Laura Garnett, who shares “9 Signs You’re In a Toxic Remote Workplace.”

“Sure, transitioning from an in-office environment to a completely virtual one may have had its challenges, but you probably feel emboldened by the actions your organization’s leadership took and know they have your back no matter where you work from,” Garnett writes. “On the contrary, if your company’s culture is less than ideal, you may feel as if the tumultuous events of 2020 have exacerbated pre-existing issues and that something is off.”

In my case, I noticed my tidy 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. job sprawling into afterhours. One Friday night, at 8 p.m., as I stretched across my sofa to watch a Jack Ryan marathon on Amazon Prime, I got a call from a colleague. She jokingly asked if I was sipping a glass of wine (as many are at 8 p.m. on a Friday), and then asked about a Webinar that hadn’t uploaded properly to our site. Fortunately, it was not an issue I could help with, so I was released back to my leisure. But what if it was something I could jump in and fix? Would I have been expected to reopen my laptop and get back to work?

A new, toxic problem in the all-virtual workplace is a lack of boundaries. Whereas many employers used to respect the regular working hours of employees, working from home means many no longer do. Has your company communicated with managers about maintaining regular working hours even if employees are at home all the time now?

Micromanagement, as Garnett notes, also can be a toxic problem worsened by working virtually. Some managers with micromanaging tendencies may find it more than they can bear not seeing their employees doing work. They may feel the need to call multiple times a day (and night) just to reassure themselves. The anxiety is understandable, but constant calling, on the phone or via Zoom call, can be intrusive and disruptive. Resources for managers on monitoring the productivity and efficiency of a virtual workforce would be helpful. Have you found great resources in this area you could share with peers? What would you advise if you were the one creating those resources?

Over-reliance on video meetings when a conventional phone would suffice is another problem I have noticed. A person’s home is a private space. When that space is particularly small—as it is for many city dwellers in studio or small one-bedroom apartments—you can’t help but have your private space forced to be on display during video calls. In one case, a colleague noted how distracting the magnets on my refrigerator were as we practiced for an upcoming Webinar. Make technology available for employees to easily click on to create false backdrops, or, if that technology is already available on your video meeting platform, show employees how to use it. That way, you can enforce a face-to-face exchange without also enforcing a peep into the private home of your employee.

Sometimes a phone call trumps e-mail. In almost every way I prefer e-mail and texting over phone calls. The one exception is when e-mails start coming across to me as unfriendly or heavy-handed. Years ago, while working for the company that used to own Training, we had a colleague whose tone was off-putting and anger-inducing over e-mail. However, if you took the time to call this employee, and talk by phone, you would find her much less frustrating and unpleasant. I have a colleague like that now. Whenever I speak with her on the phone, and especially when we see each other in-person, I find her friendly and easy to talk to. When we correspond by e-mail, she seems like a completely different person. She comes across as brusque and cold. At this point, I am able to remind myself that no offense is intended, but when I first started working at the company, I was irritated by my e-mail exchanges with her. A reminder to employees to pick up the phone rather than engage in testy e-mail exchanges could be helpful.

Poor ergonomics are rarely discussed as toxic, but discomfort that could lead to musculoskeletal problems should be addressed. I’m using a cushion from my couch to make my simple, collapsible desk chair endurable. With workforces likely at home most, or all, of the time for another six months, a stipend that would allow employees to get reimbursed for outfitting their home “office” could be beneficial. Your employees’ enhanced productivity in more comfortable accommodations might make the investment well worth it.

What instruction and resources are you providing to managers to help them more adeptly manage a virtual workforce?


Training magazine is the industry standard for professional development and news for training, human resources and business management professionals in all industries.