We finally have proof that remote working is making people ruder – Wired.co.uk

A subject line only email, a Zoom call postponed at the very last minute or a sarcastic Slack message. If these things sound familiar, it’s because casual rudeness has become commonplace at remote workplaces around the world.

At Netflix, three marketing managers were fired in July after making rude comments about their coworkers. “What happened here was unfortunately not simply venting on Slack or a single conversation,” Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos wrote in a comment on LinkedIn. “These were critical, personal comments made over several months about their peers…including during meetings when those peers were talking or presenting.”

These kinds of stories are everywhere, especially in tech companies. One HR executive said their incivility problem has become so pervasive, they’ve had to address it at the senior staff meeting. “I did a whole presentation on how some people aren’t being their best selves,” they explained. “It’s not dramatic, like flipping tables, but they’re more curt or less likely to help. So the person you’re used to being a delight, they’re suddenly not a delight anymore.”

When someone is rude at work, it’s not just annoying or upsetting, it also makes the people they target worse at their jobs. A Georgetown study found that those who experienced rudeness came up with 39 per cent fewer creative ideas and performed 33 per cent worse at solving word puzzles. And creativity and problem-solving aren’t attributes employers want dialled back.

The damage caused by workplace incivility has been studied for years, but until recently we didn’t fully understand the reason why people are rude in the first place. In a 2021 study, applied organisational psychologists at Portland State University analysed 76 research papers, covering more than 35,000 employees, to find out — and their findings explain the recent spate of bad manners.

The biggest triggers for rudeness are things that have been super exacerbated by the pandemic, says lead author of the study Lauren Park. These are things such as burnout, emotional exhaustion, high workload, but also if you aren’t feeling secure in your position at work. What’s worse, rudeness is contagious. “One of the biggest predictors of engaging in incivility is having experienced it yourself,” Park says. So, even if someone is unintentionally rude, it can have a knock-on effect. Someone who receives an email they think sounds rude, then sends off a ruder one themselves. “All this ambiguity makes experiencing incivility more likely,” says Park. “The next person perpetuates it, which creates this cycle.”

The shift to virtual working hasn’t helped. Now that many people are working from home permanently, at least on a part-time basis, there are new routes to rudeness that we didn’t have to deal with before. “There are ways we could be uncivil completely virtually, that might not even involve interactions,” says Park. “Examples I’ve seen are someone not including you in a virtual meeting, or cancelling a meeting just as it’s about to start.”

Video calls may seem the norm now, but we are still pretty socially inept while we’re on them. “When you get to the last few minutes of a Zoom meeting, everyone gets so antsy about running over it’s like they forget how to be polite,” says Maxine*, a researcher at a TV production company. She recalls a specific meeting when she was last up to speak, but she’d hardly said anything before her boss interrupted to tell her to hurry up. “It sounds a bit like I’m whining, but it really messed with my mind at the time,” she says. “I rushed through my updates, then everyone hung up, and I just sat at my computer stewing over it.”

It’s this brooding that intensifies the problem. “When you are mistreated in an ambiguous way, and you’re not sure what the intention was, it actually promotes worse outcomes because of the level of rumination that you have,” says Park. If someone is explicitly mean to you, there’s no question about it, you can rationalise it and move on. But when there’s ambiguity involved, says Park, “it’s something you’re always thinking about”.

That’s a regular feature of working from home. Our perceptions of what our colleagues are like, based solely on remote working interactions, can be warped.

Sasha*, a manager at a media company, was convinced her new boss hated her until they met in person. “She’s not naturally effusive, so I just assumed she thought I was crap,” she says. “There’s just an emotional element missing when you’re trying to manage someone from behind a screen, so things get lost in translation.” The same is true for emails. Thanks to negative intensification bias, we’re naturally prone to see and dwell on negativity rather than positivity, even in the most innocent messages, making the virtual workspace a minefield for perceived rudeness.

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