Home Offices Shouldn’t Be Toxic Workplaces
We’re all anxiously awaiting the time when we can “go back to normal” after social isolation, quarantine, and all of the other measures we’re taking to protect ourselves and our community from COVID-19. We want to go over to our friends’ apartments, go to coffee shops, bookstores, and bars. We want to have picnics and go out dancing. We want to hug each other.
But we also have an opportunity to think about the ways in which we don’t want to go back to normal. For so many of us, normal is food and housing insecurity, living paycheck to paycheck, inadequate healthcare, work environments that don’t accommodate accessibility needs, toxic bosses, and more. We don’t want to go back to normal. We want better.
As writer Aja Barber puts it, “what world do you want to return to?”
There are a lot of places we could focus our energies to build a better future - to dream beyond returning to the “normal” of late capitalism. We hope that you’re doing that dreaming, we certainly are.
But here, we’re going to talk about one specific way that we hope that we don’t return to normal; work. For everyone, our work lives are different and we don’t want to go back to normal.
As creative professionals, we see this moment as an opportunity to develop more human, and more humane ways of working. We are talking more amongst ourselves about how to keep serving our community of artists while prioritizing our own mental wellbeing and the safety of the people we care about.
With organizations and companies adopting new tools and new workflows by necessity, we see a big opportunity for them to build work cultures that people want to keep working in. But we also know that opportunities for positive change are only actualized when we work to see them through.
With so many people increasingly working from home, your home office and your virtual office culture might adapt in positive ways you could never have predicted. Or they could very well replicate the same toxic patterns that you experience in an office.
Our hope at Fractured Atlas is that the rupture in our work lives caused by COVID-19 causes everyone from managers to leadership to workers to build work environments that are more humane, more supportive, and better balanced with the rest of our lives.
Virtual Work Shouldn’t Replicate Office Work
For everyone whose jobs have suddenly become virtual, there’s a lot of advice out there about how to work from home. We’ve even shared some of our favorite working from home resources. There are suggestions about how to turn your home office into a facsimile of your office desk, including suggestions to refer to your pets as coworkers. But in reality, we need to do more and we need to do better.
A home office isn’t the same as an office building, and trying to recreate that experience is bound to end in frustration. We have to recognize that the way we work from home is different from the way that we work in an office.
Our days are organized differently, our communication patterns look different, we need different amounts of and kinds of meetings, and we need new tools to get our work done together. The result of a successful virtual working environment is that everyone is empowered to structure their days and their responsibilities however works best for them, with the full trust of their team that everyone is doing their work, whether or not they respond to an email within 5 minutes.
Virtual offices shouldn’t try to directly replicate the experience of physical offices because right now, people have life responsibilities that are almost certainly more important than whatever job they are currently trying to figure out how to do from their kitchen counter desk setup. We can’t expect our work lives to go unchanged except for switching up the scenery and losing the commute.
Toxic Work Cultures Aren’t Limited to Physical Offices
With a mass adoption of tools like Slack, Zoom, and other virtual collaboration tools, we see both possibility and risk. These tools can help people stay better connected to one another, collaborate more effectively, and share more institutional knowledge. They can support companies and organizations as they become more flexible and more trusting.
We always hope that companies and organizations become more flexible and more trusting, but the fact is that now, they need to.
Tools for virtual collaboration and communication, like any tools, can be used for a variety of ends. They can make teams more autonomous, open, productive, and honest. That’s how we are trying to use our virtual collaboration tools.
These same tools can also make teams more anxious, more closely scrutinized, and less productive. If your work culture already has some toxic aspects, you won’t get rid of them by working virtually. What will happen instead is that your home office will just become your toxic workplace.
Tools that facilitate virtual work can be weaponized to continue any toxic workplace behaviors that are already happening.
As an example, the Verge reported how luggage company Away used Slack as a public arena to bully, intimidate, and guilt trip workers.
What Makes a Toxic Workplace?
When we talk about toxic workplaces, we’re talking about a variety of factors that result in people feeling unproductive, anxious, and helpless. A toxic workplace is more than just a place where you don't want to go, whether in person or virtually. They are often marked by personal conflict, intimidation, and burnout. Toxic work cultures are bad for workers, and ultimately bad for the company or organization. Toxic teams have a harder time performing than non-toxic ones.
Toxic workplaces are often enforced by unspoken expectation and by atmosphere. For example, if you theoretically have unlimited vacation but you never see anyone take a few days off, you’ll quickly see that vacations aren’t a real option for you.
Toxic work cultures are marked by micromanagement, a lack of boundaries, the importance of busyness over everything else, and the loudest voices getting heard the most often.
Avoiding Micromanagement in a Virtual Workplace
Workers in a toxic office culture are managed too tightly. You might have to run every small idea by your manager, or cc them on every email you send. There is an ambient sense of mistrust, especially from management or leadership. You aren’t empowered to do the job that you were hired for. You start to second-guess every decision you make because people don’t default to trusting one another. It’s hard to accomplish much because management creates a bottleneck.
Resist Impulses to be a Virtual Micromanager
When all of a sudden your team is reporting to you from their homes and you can’t see what they’re doing, you might feel like you need to check in more to make sure that they’re still working.
Courtney Harge, our Associate Director of Inbound Marketing, notes that “micromanagement blossoms as a response to insecurity which can be amplified in that lack of proximity.” She suggests that managers ask themselves “does this thing I’m asking my subordinate to do contribute to making me feel better or making the work better?”If the answer is the former, that’s something for the manager to work on in their own self-reflection and in conversations with mentors or peers.
She encourages managers who are struggling with micromanaging tendencies to ask what their direct reports need and then trust them to give it to you.
Nicola Carpenter, Associate Director of People Operations understands that managers worry that without an office, their team won’t get their work done. Instead of using tools like video conferencing or frequent and unnecessary Slack check-ins to see how quickly people respond, she suggests that managers discuss overall priorities and roadmaps with their teams and use tools like OKRs to keep everyone on track without breathing down anyone’s neck.
Advocate for Yourself if You’re Being Micromanaged from Your Home Office
We recognize how challenging it is to advocate for yourself in a toxic work environment. It can feel like your job is on the line if you speak up, or that you will alienate yourself from the rest of your team if you try to improve working conditions.
Ultimately, micromanaging is a managerial problem, but there are ways to mitigate the effect on other workers. If you feel like a manager is managing you too closely (even from afar), you should ask questions. Ask what they are concerned about or worried for.
Courtney Harge is a fan of the “direct yet polite question.” She suggests asking your manager questions like “Is there a reason you’re concerned this won’t get done?” “‘Can we agree on an update schedule that works for both of us?” “Is there something I’m missing that I should be aware of as I work?” or “Are there pitfalls or obstacles I should look out for?”
By figuring out where your manager’s concern is rooted, you can work together to find some common ground. If they are concerned that you’ll start missing deadlines, you can suggest a recurring check-in to talk about progress rather get bombarded with emails or messages at unpredictable times. If they are concerned that you’re slacking off during the day, propose a daily correspondence where you lay out your plan for the day. This can be in a daily standup call or Slack or an end of day email.
Setting Boundaries for Virtual Working
Working without boundaries is a classic feature of a toxic work environment. Bad boundaries could mean a variety of things. Poor boundaries mean being expected to work at all hours, never really being off the clock. It could mean that you’re expected to respond to work messages at all hours - including emails, Slacks, or texts. It could mean a manager texting your personal phone number about a work-related issue. Some companies or organizations use the language of “all being one big family” to justify making demands that are outside of appropriate work boundaries.
Modeling Healthy Boundaries as a Virtual Manager
Setting and maintaining work boundaries often comes from the top-down. It’s fundamentally up to managers and leadership to set healthy expectations for work life balance, and to affirm that balance when all of a sudden everyone is working from their home.
There are a lot of ways that managers can affirm boundaries in a virtual working environment.
The first step as a manager is to articulate your own boundaries. The next step is to adhere to them. If you tell your team that you’re unavailable after 6, don’t send emails at 6:30. It leads to confusion and to a sense that the boundaries you set don’t really matter.
Don’t schedule video meetings just to check that your team is working. Keep in mind that your team might be working in different time zones and will need time between meetings for breaks and to live the rest of their lives. We’ve even heard stories about managers scheduling back-to-back meetings so that their team wasn’t able to take lunch breaks.
Avoid messaging people during off hours, especially if they are a direct report or are junior to you. Nicola Carpenter avoids this even when she has an idea late at night or over the weekend by scheduling the email to send during business hours or by setting herself a reminder. “Even if we tell folks that we don’t expect a reply, messaging at all hours can make it seem like we expect 24/7 availability.”
Courtney Harge advises that managers model healthy negotiation and conflict resolution about boundaries. And that management should err on the side of not getting their way. “If there is a moment that requires some additional heavy lifting, that burden should fall on management first. The power dynamic (and financial benefit) is in their favor.”
Maintaining Boundaries as a Worker
Setting boundaries is particularly challenging when working from home. Without the physical boundary of an office, it can feel hard to justify not responding to work emails or working later hours than you usually would. You might think to yourself, “Oh let me just respond to this message or figure out this one thing, it won’t take long” and all of a sudden you’ve been at your computer until past dinner.
You might also be working different hours than some of your colleagues with the additional flexibility. For example, I tend to work from 9 to 5 because my brain is sharpest earlier in the day whereas other members of the External Relations team work from 10 to 6. This means that there’s a gap when some of us are working and others aren’t. At worst, this could mean that everyone has to work from 9 to 6 if we’re demanding immediate responses. To combat that, when we message one another during the times when we know someone isn’t online, we’ll make sure to say “I know you’re not working right now, this is for when you are.”
To make your time boundaries clear, Nicola Carpenter suggests erring on the side of transparency. “Put lunch on your calendar, snooze your Slack notifications when you’re not working, add your working hours to your calendar.”
She puts her work laptop and materials into a box at the end of the day because it makes it harder to send that one last email if she needs to pull her computer out from its box. Plus, she likes having a virtual commute.
Courtney Harge agrees. “The clearer you are about your boundaries the less likely someone is to run over them.” She notes that it is within your rights as a worker to not respond to a manager after working hours, even though it can feel difficult or scary to have that conversation.
Developing Non-Toxic Productivity Expectations for Virtual Work
Toxic work environments demand busyness at all times, and productivity at all costs.
I’ve heard from previous managers that if you’re early, you’re on time. If you’re on time, you’re late, and if you’re late you’re screwed. Prioritizing being at your desk before your boss gets there and staying until after they leave so that management knows that you’re busy is a symptom of a toxic environment.
Sitting at your desk doesn’t mean you’re being productive, even if you look like you are. Toxic work environments get hung up on making sure that workers appear busy, even if they could get as much done with a shorter and more concentrated workday.
Toxic workplaces focus on output without considering that everyone on a team has a life outside of their job. They are unable to adjust expectations as life situations crop up. If someone is experiencing a medical emergency or has to all of a sudden care for an aging relative, their work productivity will (and should!) change.
Healthy work environments foster open conversations about bandwidth, whereas toxic ones expect high levels of output regardless of what’s going on in someone’s life.
Nicola Carpenter describes a phenomenon that’s not specific to virtual work, but is a part of toxic workplaces overall. She calls it “purpose weaponization.” When an organization’s purpose is weaponized, the mission is more important than the self-care and resiliency of teams. Organizations ask too much of their team, burning them out and churning through employees.
How Managers Can Set Realistic Virtual Productivity Expectations
A huge issue that managers have when figuring out how to set expectations for productivity is confusing busy with productive. Sure, Jack in Stephen King’s The Shining had a good word count by the end of the day, but it was the same deranged sentence over and over again. Sitting in front of a computer doesn’t necessarily correlate with productivity.
With entire offices transitioning over to working from home as a result of COVID-19, the fact is that you won’t be as productive as you were before. You won’t hit that old productivity level because you’re adjusting to a whole new way of working, and because the world in which you operate is now fundamentally different. Courtney Harge puts it, “You will do less, which is more than enough.”
As the Management Center suggests, focus on output rather than activity. “When you emphasize results over activities, you’re showing that you trust your staff to manage their own time and workload.”
Managing Productivity Expectations as a Worker
As workers, we’re often asked to always go above and beyond, to do everything we’re asked and then some. But what happens when we’re being asked to do too much? To hit the same productivity goals that we had in the office, not taking into account the additional responsibilities we have for our own health and the health of our family and friends? It’s hard to know how to push back against unreasonable or toxic expectations.
Courtney Harge suggests negotiating priorities early. Ask your manager questions like “If I can only get one of these things done, which do you prefer?” If your manager is adding responsibilities to your plate in addition to your usual workload, ask them which you should focus on first.
If you find yourself with too much work, let someone know as soon as you realize it, rather than letting it fester or burning yourself out trying to accomplish more than you reasonably can. Try to let people know if you need more time, more resources, or for responsibilities to be taken off your plate entirely.
Don’t Let the Loudest Voices Win in a Virtual Office
A major hallmark of a toxic work environment is that the louder you are, the more you are heard. This could mean that the person who talks over everyone else in the meeting is most likely to get their ideas implemented or that the person who is yelling is taken the most seriously. People with the most aggressive communication styles tend to get the most airtime and people who aren’t as loud just aren’t heard.
It’s usually worth reiterating that the people who tend to be the most comfortable making their voices heard tend to be the ones who, because of a cocktail of structural inequalities like racism, sexism, classism, ableism, etc., have been taught that their voices matter more than others’.
How Managers Can Amplify All Voices, Virtually
Managers can implement multiple ways for members of a team to contribute or to provide feedback. If they just trust that someone will raise an issue in a staff meeting, the only people who will feel empowered to make their voices heard will be the people who already feel comfortable taking up that space. Providing multiple spaces for people on your team to let their feelings be known will better accommodate different communication patterns and comfort levels. Let your team know what these avenues are - email, pre-submitted questions, one-on-one meetings, or breakout groups.
Encourage staff in video meetings to share their views. Video conferencing has the same problems as in-person meetings, where people tend to jump in and talk over one another. This leaves very little space for people who might not feel safe jumping into the fray or using aggressive communication patterns. As you’re holding virtual meetings, leave space (including silence) and ask for people’s input if they haven’t already provided it.
Nicola Carpenter suggests the concept of rounds, which she learned about from August. Doing rounds means that everyone goes around and shares something. It’s a way to check in at the beginning of a meeting and also a great way to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to weigh in if you’re doing a feedback round.
Amplify Your Own Voice and Your Colleague’s Voices Virtually
In the same way that you might ask for some help from colleagues if you feel yourself getting continually silenced or shut out during physical meetings or conversations, ask your colleagues to help amplify your voice virtually.
If you can’t get a word in edgewise on a video call or if nobody is responding to your Slack messages, ask a colleague if they can help draw attention to what you are asking. And, of course, the converse is also true. If you see a colleague getting shut down or disregarded in video meetings, jump in and advocate for them.
Pause the conversation to make space for them. If their ideas are being taken over by louder voices, affirm that they were the originator of that plan or that idea. Create a coalition and look out for each other.
We Have an Opportunity to Build Non-Toxic Work Cultures
We don’t know how long offices will be shut down or how long we’ll have to socially isolate ourselves. We don’t know what the future will look like when we’re in the next phase of this crisis, or what it means to be out of this crisis. But we do know that the world will be different.
We know that people’s relationship to work will be different. We can now see which jobs are truly essential to keeping life going. We can now see that jobs that we “couldn’t do from home” can definitely be done from home.
We hope that companies and organizations facing big questions about the future of work and the future of their teams will take this opportunity - this radical shift in how we work - to find better ways of working. Collectively, we can find new and better ways to work rather than slipping back onto old, toxic habits.
Members of the Fractured Atlas team have collected their ideas and resources for developing better workplaces on Work. Shouldn’t. Suck. It’s full of strategies, tools, and conversations for creating more equitable and humane workplaces. Better workplaces are what this moment requires of us and what this opportunity affords us. Here is all of the collected advice about creating virtual workplaces.
About Nina Berman
Nina Berman is an arts industry worker and ceramicist based in New York City, currently working as Associate Director, Communications and Content at Fractured Atlas. She holds an MA in English from Loyola University Chicago. At Fractured Atlas, she shares tips and strategies for navigating the art world, interviews artists, and writes about creating a more equitable arts ecosystem. Before joining Fractured Atlas, she covered the book publishing industry for an audience of publishers at NetGalley. When she's not writing, she's making ceramics at Centerpoint Ceramics in Brooklyn.