The conversation on toxic work cultures has been an issue for many years, but very recently has this been pushed into the forefront of the employment conversation. Nobody wants to work in a toxic environment. More and more often companies are being outed by former or current employees about the toxic nature of the workplace environments that are being created. A recent study found that 90% of individuals would forgo a salary hike if it meant being employed somewhere with toxic workplace culture. Cliques, unsupportive leadership, and playing the blame game when things go wrong are just a few examples of instances that make a workplace culture toxic.

When the pandemic began, it shifted the entire framework of how many companies run and operate their businesses. Work from home became the new norm, and slowly businesses became acclimated with this new remote work concept. So this begs the question of how the work from a home situation that so many people are in can affect this concept of healthy workplace culture. One thing is undoubtedly sure, which is that it is absolutely possible to create a toxic workplace even while working remotely.

Toxicity in the workplace is not a purely physical thing. Although it is easier to identify the concrete, physical elements of a workplace culture that are toxic, it is very easy to facilitate that environment virtually. Especially in a time of blurred workspaces, heightened mental health concerns, and the constant impending fear of an economic collapse, it is important for employers to look for some specific things than create a toxic work from home culture for their employees.

One example of this can be the blurring of lines between a work-life balance. In the age of working from home, it is very easy to get roped into, either by choice or by force, overextending yourself and your time. Especially now with the inability to physically clock out and leave “the office,” the tendency to work beyond traditional hours, take on extra work, and feel obligated to keep being productive even when you are off the clock can be tempting. This can be especially true when that pressure is coming from the higher-ups or bosses within your workplace chain of command. And it's easy to fall into that trap as employees. Work-life balance may seem less important when the life element of it is less exciting. Without places to go, people to see, and things to do it is easy to take this as an opportunity to prioritize work over play. But this creates a plethora of problems.

When the world does inevitably revert back to normal that blurring of the lines between work and life will most likely permeate into the physical office space as well. Burnout is a possible reaction to this. And with burnout comes moody, stressed, and overwhelmed employees. These burnout side effects can and will creep into the physical office culture. Before you know it there is the possibility of an entirely shifted toxic office culture due to the standards of pandemic work lifestyle.

Another example of potentially toxic virtual workplace scenarios is related to the lack of socialization between employees. Without the back and forth of meetings, consultations, and conversations between staff there is the possibility for fewer ideas to be bounced around and for many employees to feel stifled or silenced. When a company is trying to simply look for ways to stay afloat with this new remote work lifestyle, it can be easy to fall into the “stay the course” mindset of operations. But by sharing new ideas comes the possibility for growth and meaningful change. No business can be successful by remaining stagnant constantly. Hearing the opinions and voices of others, and finding new ways of operation, are key to creating a consistently successful and sustainable operation. Supportive and open leadership is key, especially when interactions and conversations are brief and virtual. Without supplying an open means of dialogue and conversation, it is easy for workers to feel like their opinions are disregarded and do not matter.

So yes, creating a toxic work environment is a very real possibility even when working from home. So how do we prevent or fix this? Open conversation and dialogue are key. The lack of physical socialization can make degrees of separation feel far greater than they are. Bosses and higher-ups need to make sure to create lines of communication between them and workers in order to make sure people are being heard and ideas are being voiced in a way that still feels genuine and listened to. Without this, you run the risk of employees feeling like just more cogs in the corporate machine.

The other element of importance is making sure to prioritize employee mental health. The current pandemic does enough to drain the mental health and wellbeing of workers. Make sure to create environments where employees feel comfortable and safe with simply saying no to the prospect of extra work or projects. Although we would all love for everything to be done quickly and efficiently, it is much better to take some extra time to delegate tasks rather than overwhelm and overstimulate people. Make sure your employees know that saying “I don’t have the time or energy to add this task to my to-do list” is a totally acceptable answer when approached. Also, make sure to extensively track who is doing what so that no one person or group of people feel overextended. This small extra step can be the fine line between happy and healthy employees and ones who feel completely burnt out.

Ultimately, nobody wants to run or work for a company that feels culturally toxic. It creates more chaos than productivity, and eventually, you will be stuck in a cyclical storm of employee turnaround and stagnation due to the environment created. It takes very little effort and attention to make sure workers feel seen, heard, and respected. In this time of societal uncertainty, make space for recognizing that everyone is doing their best. And in the end, try to remember that a healthy environment now will make for a comfortable transition back to normalcy.