While the switch to hybrid working has been embraced by many employees, one less desirable consequence is the emergence of new forms of workplace bullying.
Common examples include a cutting remark made during a video call, excluding a colleague from attending a remote meeting, or using messaging apps to gossip during a group presentation, according to a 2021 survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute.
The study found that half of all respondents had experienced or witnessed mistreatment during a virtual meeting. In the majority of cases the mistreatment had occurred in front of other colleagues – a sign that a multi-participant video call can offer the perpetrator cover they may not get with a snarky email and the paper trail it leaves.
There is an increasing recognition of the toll this sort of behaviour can have on the victim’s mental health.
“The psychological harms to the individual can be extreme,” says Dan Auerbach, executive coach and CEO of Associated Employee Assistance Providers.
“We're social creatures and one of the most insidious parts of bullying is that it's exclusionary. At the beginning, we'll start to make a bit of noise to try and get back into the group. But often we collapse and give up. It can lead to a whole loop of anxiety and depression.”
Employers not only have a legal duty to create psychologically safe workplaces, it’s also in their best interest to do so to support productivity and team morale, Auerbach says.
Bullying can have a significant cultural, financial and reputational impact on organisations. Studies have found that employees will consciously decrease their efforts at work and may take their frustrations out on customers: it tends to have a corrosive effect on workplace culture.
Remote workers are already more vulnerable to feelings of loneliness and isolation, and online bullying can amplify those feelings, leading to high stress levels and poor decision making.
“Bullying produces an immediate physiological response – our frontal cortex sort of goes offline,” says Mary Freer, a Westpac Social Change Fellow and author of Compassion Revolution, which lays out the case for greater compassion in the workplace.
“That’s the part of our brain that we need for clear executive thinking and creative work. That's the same for when we experience bullying, or if we witness it.”
Online workplace bullying is typically more subtle, and small slights can be difficult to interpret when lacking the clearer social cues we get from face-to-face contact. A study by Harvard Business Review found that remote employees are more likely to suspect that their co-workers are speaking behind their backs or shunning them, irrespective of whether it is true.
“It can be more difficult to spot online bullying because you're often not getting clear emotional signals,” says Auerbach. “Somebody may be looking off to the side because they're distracted or because they're upset – it can be hard to get an accurate read sometimes.”
Even so, there’s no doubting the opportunities a video call offers for behaviour that undermines a colleague.
For example, a perpetrator may deliberately ignore cues when someone is trying to speak, or they may literally silence someone with the mute button. They may feel there’s a lower likelihood of being called out because many communication tools are not monitored by management and their actions are unlikely to be reported by other participants.
During anti-bullying workshops, Auerbach often hears stories about two people sending each other private messages during a video meeting.
“Sometimes they aren't shy about showing what they're doing: one person may roll their eyes, and then the other one giggles every time a particular person speaks.”
Freer believes that leaders need to check in with team members more frequently in remote settings and follow up with individuals when the usual dynamic appears to be off.
“Don't be shy about telling someone if they have been quieter than usual, or saying, ‘I’ve noticed there's been a few comments coming your way from such-and-such – how are things going?’”
She says a team charter that sets out acceptable behaviours can also help. That could include an agreement to let team members finish expressing their ideas before someone else contributes. A meeting facilitator can ensure that everyone gets the chance to speak and be heard.
Ultimately, Freer says that online workplace bullying is a cultural issue, not a tech problem.
“I always ask people in Zoom workshops I’m running to have their cameras on. You wouldn't go into a face-to-face meeting without being able to make eye contact. Turning off the camera can be quite dismissive; much like being called on last to speak every time, or just as the meeting is about to finish. The same dynamic can occur across any piece of technology or in-person situation. If your culture is dismissive, it's dismissive; whatever technology you use.”