PORTLAND, Ore. — Remote work is already a thing of the past for many employees around the United States. As workers return to their jobs, a new study finds many are out of practice when it comes to dealing with their fellow co-workers. Researchers from Portland State University say workplace incivility is on the rise and office bickering could spiral out of control if employers don’t handle it properly.
“People have gotten used to not having to engage in interpersonal communication as much and that can take an already distressing or tense situation and exacerbate it because people are out of practice of not having to have difficult conversations,” explains study author Larry Martinez, associate professor of industrial-organizational psychology, in a university release. “These spirals that we’re seeing might be stronger in a post-pandemic world.”
Incivility comes in many forms
Researchers note that not all acts of incivility are easy to spot. Uncivil behavior can include many things, from criticizing people in public, to rude or obnoxious behavior, to simply arriving late for a meeting or interrupting a co-worker.
Thanks to the pandemic, it can be even harder to spot hostility when someone is only communicating through video chats and emails. Martinez and co-author Lauren Park add incivility can often go unnoticed when people can’t see a remote worker’s body language or the tone in their voice.
“Incivility is typically ambiguous and not very intense, but it has harmful effects all the same,” Park explains.
Stopping the uncivil spiral
Park and Martinez focused on identifying the instigators of uncivil behavior at work and who is less likely to spread incivility when they encounter it. Their findings reveal employees who have more control over their jobs are less likely to repay rude behavior by spreading it to others.
These workers generally have more freedom in deciding how to complete tasks at their jobs. This usually gives them more time to seek out support with hard tasks, mentally and physically detach after a long day, reflect on difficult situations, and even confront hostile co-workers.
The team also finds those who work with a team that is also civil most of the time end up acting more friendly as well. Additionally, the study finds older employees are generally less likely to return hostility with more rudeness.
The team says, even if employers institute a hybrid work schedule after the pandemic, situations always come up where tensions naturally rise and tempers flare.
“There will inevitably be some conflict as people might be meeting coworkers in person for the first time or they’ll be working together again in the same physical space,” Martinez says. “Relationships will need to be renegotiated in different kinds of ways and the likelihood that people are going to be able to address these situations in a conducive manner as compared to before the pandemic will decrease.”
Supporting workers who encounter incivility
Park suggests that companies can prevent incivility in the workplace by showing support for the people who are on the receiving end of rude behavior. Doing so can keep those employees from transferring their bad experiences to someone else.
“They’re at a high risk of starting these vicious cycles,” Park concludes. “Providing support is not only the right thing to do but it stops that behavior from spiraling through the organization.”
Martinez adds that companies should not overlook complaints about a toxic work environment. Having policies in place which address incivility among co-workers right away may help keep things from escalating in the future.
The study appears in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.