Will “de-densifying” reduce workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment in the COVID-transformed American workplace?

In a piece for The Guardian over the summer (link here), Cassidy Randall speculated on the future of American office life, as employers consider options for full or partial re-opening in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic:

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to surge in parts of the US, some companies have moved forward with plans to let their employees re-enter the office after months of working from home.

In the absence of federal guidelines around best practices, office managers will probably need to rely on an abundance of caution. This may turn offices into ghost towns of their former selves, with gatherings by the water cooler, big meetings and buzzing shared spaces disappearing for the foreseeable future.

Anticipating a possible uptick in infection rates during the fall, she emphasized the likelihood of “de-densifying” staffing patterns and staggered shifts to moderate the number of workers present in the office at any given time. This could mean, at least for now, the cessation of large, in-person staff meetings and crowded work areas.

The disturbingly stubborn rates of COVID-19 infections have no doubt caused many employers to continue to permit workers to spend parts or all of their week working from home. In some circles, this has raised the question of the necessity of maintaining large offices and on-site work requirements, even after we find our way through this pandemic. A prominent example of this revamping is Microsoft. As reported earlier this month by Tom Warren for The Verge (link here):

Microsoft is allowing more of its employees to work from home permanently, the company announced Friday. While the vast majority of Microsoft employees are still working from home during the ongoing pandemic, the software maker has unveiled “hybrid workplace” guidance internally to allow for far greater flexibility once US offices eventually reopen. The Verge has received Microsoft’s internal guidance, and it outlines the company’s flexible working plans for the future.

Microsoft will now allow employees to work from home freely for less than 50 percent of their working week, or for managers to approve permanent remote work. Employees who opt for the permanent remote work option will give up their assigned office space, but still have options to use touchdown space available at Microsoft’s offices.

Better work environments?

I’ve been looking at these assessments in part through a lens of whether the coronavirus-impacted work environment will affect prevalence rates and the nature of various types of workplace abuse. Back in May, I offered this preliminary forecast for when physical workplaces start to reopen:

First, I expect that most folks will be on their best behavior, at least initially. They will understand that we’re still in challenging times and be grateful to have paid employment.

Second, I think that various clashes, disagreements, and conflicts will arise, as a result of a mix of employer policies and heightened anxiety levels. Best intentions notwithstanding, a lot of folks will be on edge, and understandably so.

Third, I suspect that a lot of conflicts, incivilities, and micro-aggressions will move online, as we continue to conduct a lot of our work remotely and digitally. A barrage of email and text exchanges will accompany these transitions back to our workspaces. Some will get contentious; a (hopefully) much smaller share will be abusive.

Fourth, we may see a (welcomed, in my opinion) upturn in labor union organizing on behalf of our lowest paid workers in retail and service industries, many of whom have been the core of our essential workforce outside of health care providers. 

Finally, we’ll see coronavirus-related claims over disability discrimination, workers’ compensation, family and medical leave, workplace safety and health laws, and other legal standards related to worker health. Things could get quite litigious if managed poorly.

What I didn’t anticipate was the now very real possibility that some (many?) organizations may never return to the fully occupied physical workspaces that were the norm before the pandemic suddenly defined the contours of our lives.

To the extent that bullying, mobbing, and harassment are very relational activities, de-densifying via continued physical distancing and staggered employee shifts may help to reduce the prevalence of these forms of mistreatment. However, some of the bad behavior, as I mentioned, will simply port over to an online setting. After all, less-than-wonderful co-workers can be jerks on Zoom and scheme and manipulate in the digital fog. This could give rise to more covert forms of bullying, sabotaging, and undermining of others.

It’s also possible that, as I suggested in May, most people will try to rise above the fray, grateful to be employed, while recognizing that we should all bring a sense of team play to the current work situation.

For now, it’s too early to know whether these work-at-home practices will become a new normal. But this bears watching, especially by those of us who are attentive to the various ways in which workplace mistreatment may manifest itself.

One response

  1. I was mobbed in an all-virtual workplace. Many of the physical sensations seemed to be the same, even in a virtual setting. Being excluded from meetings takes place easily over video conferencing. Lack of management support is also easily accomplished online by managers saying, “let me give you time back”.

    Thanks for providing a platform and point of view on workplace dignity.

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