Charmed? We’re Not so Sure

Your employees may find a less civil—and more stressful—workplace when they return to the office.

Many employees, including myself, are still working from home. It can be lonely being at home alone, but it has its perks. One of those perks is no one to be annoyed by. You don’t have anyone to chat with, but you also have no one to argue with or be offended by.

A new Portland State University study, synthesized by Cristina Rojas on the university’s Website, shows that when your employees return to in-person work, the ambiance may not be collegial and charming.

“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 because people are out of practice with having difficult conversations,” said Larry Martinez, associate professor of industrial organizational psychology and co-author of the study. “These spirals we’re seeing might be stronger in a post-pandemic world.”

“Incivility is typically ambiguous and not very intense, but it has harmful effects all the same,” noted Lauren Park, a recent Ph.D. graduate in industrial organizational psychology who now works as a Human Resources research scientist.

According to Portland State University, Park’s and Martinez’s study is the first comprehensive review of its kind to analyze the factors that predict uncivil behavior in workplaces. They focused on the instigator’s perspective to better understand incivility and how to stop it at its source.

Among the findings:

  • Employees who have more control over their jobs are less likely to reciprocate incivility. Researchers suggest that employees with greater job control have more freedom in deciding when and how their work tasks are completed, offering them the time and energy to seek social or organizational support, mentally and/or physically detach from work, reflect on the situation, or confront their uncivil colleague.
  • Employees whose immediate team or workgroup engages in more civil behavior are less likely to reciprocate incivility.
  • Employees who are older are less likely to reciprocate incivility.

My take: Another huge reason employees may be grouchier is fear and anxiety. Even if the Delta variant abates in the U.S., as it already has in the UK, there is the potential for new, possibly worse variants as long as an inadequate percentage of Americans and people around the world are vaccinated.

To help employees manage stress, it helps to talk directly about anxieties and also about what employees can do proactively. This includes getting vaccinated (if they are not already); wearing a mask indoors, including in communal areas of the office; and socializing outdoors as much as possible.

It also helps to give anxiety-ridden employees assignments. You can ask each vaccinated employee to reach out to friends and family to share their vaccination story, including why they got vaccinated and how doing so is positively impacting their life. You also can share that story on your corporate intranet and corporate social media pages. You can ask one of these vaccine enthusiasts to give a presentation to their peers.

Employees who are not vaccinated also can be asked to give a presentation on their perspective, including the scientific basis for their decision.

You can do these two things in one meeting. Understandably, employees may be hesitant to publicly share their perspective. To get over that hesitancy, you could offer a significant incentive, such as a $300 gift card (or even as high as $500) or a few additional days of vacation time. With the right inducement, you may be surprised at how many volunteers step up to explain why they eagerly got vaccinated or why they continue to shun the vaccine.

Another great help during a time of anxiety and stress is providing employees with mental health resources. Instead of asking employees individually if they are OK, note during the meeting with the vaccination presentations that we continue to live through a difficult time, and that you would like to let everyone know about a great portal with mental health assessments that you found online. Mental Health America has an excellent assortment of such mental health assessments on its site.

When employees lash out at colleagues because they took too long at the coffee machine, because they forgot to collect their documents from the printer, or because they accidentally closed the elevator doors on a co-worker, it could be the result of explosive stress.

Having an honest conversation about how each person can proactively work to end the pandemic can be just the shot in the arm (pun intended) that we all need.

Are you having an honest, ongoing conversation about pandemic anxieties and stresses, and the role each employee can play in making the pandemic go away?