Opinion: Has remote working made people ruder?

Tech publication Wired has claimed a new study as ‘proof that remote work is making people ruder’. But is it really true that working from home will make you more likely to behave badly? Or could there be more behind the rise in allegations of bullying and harassment.

The analysis of 76 research papers and 35,000+ employees identified the biggest triggers for incivility as burnout, emotional exhaustion, high workloads and job insecurity. All of which have been increased by the effect of the coronavirus pandemic. So the fact that lockdowns led to more people working remotely at the same time could be some correlation, as much as causation. This then spreads as people respond by ramping up their responses to rude messages, leading to an offensiveness arms race.

So far, so logical. We’re all more stressed and that can come across in how we communicate. Which can trigger another person, or be seen as acceptable behaviour, encouraging others into negative behaviour.

But where things fall down for me is the statement that remote working made people ruder all by itself. It’s easy to blame new routines or technology as a scapegoat for bad behaviour, rather than human nature.

“No, the electric telegraph is not a sound invention. It will always be at the mercy of the slightest disruption, wild youths, drunkards, bums, etc” Dr Barbay, 1846.

Examples of virtual rudeness quoted in the article include long-term bullying, being forgotten from meetings or having them cancelled at the last minute, bosses interrupting staff, or cold and distant communication from managers. Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but all of this happened in offices and workplaces long before we switched to Zoom calls and Slack chats. I’ve witnessed junior employees gaffa taped to chairs and wheeled into reception, and senior staff destroying equipment in a rage. And I’ve been a victim of office politics and bullying, particularly in my early career. But I’ve also sadly been a bystander, and occasional perpetrator, of rude and uncivil behaviour in the past, which I still very much regret.

If you’ve spent lots of time online, especially in forums, communities or the Youtube comment section (which I don’t recommend), there are two simple reasons why rude and uncivil behaviour would be linked with virtual and remote working.

Firstly, sitting behind a screen distances you from what you write, and the response it can cause. You might not have the anonymity of a username when you’re in a work environment, but it’s easy to make a comment or rush to send an email without pausing to think how it may come across. Or to overcompensate for the physical distance in an online meeting by going too far with the casual banter.

But more importantly, everything you share online is documented. Even supposedly private messages aren’t immune from being seen and shared. It’s familiar to see a screenshot or video capture of a WhatApp conversation go viral, and yet people are surprised when it inevitably happens to them at some point. Since the dawn of social media, people have lost clients, projects or full-time roles by sharing comments about their boss or workplace online, and yet decades later it still happens on a regular basis.

The second point is actually a good thing in many ways. The bullying and harassment that might have gone unnoticed in the past is now stored, potentially indefinitely, uncovering the negative behaviour that’s always existed in the shadows. And over time, this could lead to more awareness and understanding of what is acceptable behaviour.

And the study also found that older workers were less susceptible to responding to rudeness, and that people who had more control and autonomy over their work were less likely to reciprocate. So remote working, and particularly freelancing, can actually make us all nicer, when it’s done right.

Not only that, but previous research has shown that good and altruistic bosses and colleagues actually increase trust, mutual cooperation and productivity.

If you think you might need help in dealing with your emotions or mental health, why not take a quick look at some of our articles, including how to manage professional jealousy, how to avoid mental burnout or how to deal with professional FOMO.

Read more of Dan’s previous opinion columns on freelancing here, including bad briefs, living with another freelancer, and why everyone should be self-employed at least once in their careers.