This article is part of a series of research-based pieces that explore harassment by industry, including healthcare, hospitality, tech, and the industrial and manufacturing sector. The series also delves into harassment-related issues brought about by transitions to in-person, remote and hybrid office work models.
In a post-pandemic office environment, employees are transitioning to a new way of working (remote, in-person or hybrid), and it’s creating a major shift in how they must navigate through the workplace. With the need to adapt to changes adding to their stress, employees can become mentally exhausted and disconnected from their peers. It’s these kinds of conditions that can lead to an increase in harassment. Let’s look at the latest research and expert opinions on the changing workplace and explore what you can do to create an environment where everyone feels safe and included.
The impact of the evolving post-pandemic workplace
“Although the pandemic may be easing, organizations are still grappling with its ongoing impact,” according to a new report from the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM). “Workplace culture will spell the difference between success and failure in a post-pandemic world. Now is the time to focus on communication, transparency, trust and all of the other tenets of a strong work environment — one that puts workers first.” But there is much work to be done.
Returning to the office: Experiencing mental health issues
According to a study by McKinsey, 1 in 3 employees say that returning to work, as part of a post-pandemic transition, has had a negative impact on their mental health, making them anxious and depressed. The study’s findings posit that “Employers who recognize and prioritize psychological safety alongside physical safety in their post-pandemic operations can help employees’ mental health and their own efforts to cultivate inclusive workplaces. This support can have concrete effects on critical workplace outcomes, including employee well-being, satisfaction, productivity, and absenteeism.”
Remote and hybrid environments: Feeling less connected
But it’s not just a return to the office that’s causing strife for employees. In his HBR article, Adam Smiley Poswolsky an expert on fostering human connection in the workplace, shares that “In the wake of the pandemic and the vast shift to flexible work from anywhere policies, 65% of workers say they feel less connected to their coworkers.” Poswolsky points to employee disconnection as one of the main drivers of voluntary turnover, costing U.S. companies up to $406 billion a year.
And research from Workhuman on the impact of the pandemic, found that workers are feeling more anxious (37%), isolated (31%), overwhelmed (28%), and less motivated (24%) since the start of the pandemic. And what’s causing this strain? By an overwhelming margin, 59% of those surveyed cited “less human connection” as the culprit. So, if hybrid really is here to stay, fostering a culture of connection is no longer optional.
The result: A harassment-prone environment
These workplace conditions have made the office environment ripe for the kind of harassment that leads to some startling statistics. As Kantola’s CEO and a member of the Forbes Human Resource Council, Sarah Rowell writes, “Consider the results of a recent survey of full-time U.S. employees that indicated that 44% experienced harassment at work including ‘personal harassment and bullying, discriminatory harassment and bias, online harassment and cyberbullying.’ In addition, 48% have ‘witnessed others experience harassment at work,’ and 34% “left a job because of unresolved harassment issues.” The solution, according to Rowell, “…lies in the connection between harassment prevention and inclusivity. You simply can’t have an inclusive environment where people feel understood and valued if you have not yet fully unmasked issues of harassment that may be lurking in your company.”
- experienced harassment at work44%
- have witnessed others experience harassment at work48%
- left a job because of unresolved harassment issues34%
4 ways to prevent harassment in an evolving work environment
Regardless of the business work model, a time of transition in the workplace can be used as an opportunity to turn the culture around to be a place that is free from harassment and where everyone is in a good position to give their best. Here are three steps that can help organizations to get there.
1. Cultivate an inclusive culture of alignment and connectedness
Cultivating a culture of alignment and connectedness can transcend any one specific work model. A report from The Institute of Leadership and Management found that building close relationships with peers was indicated as a significant factor in job satisfaction by 77% of respondents.
According to Gartner “Alignment and connectedness operate like the left and right sides of your brain — rational and emotional. Both contribute to culture’s impact on outcomes, such as performance and retention.” The research indicates that these components can be strengthened through strategies that can help employees embody the following positive assertions.
2. Create shared understanding through education and training
Education and training can help employees to better understand the impact of their own behavior and provide tools and strategies to successfully navigate in an evolving workplace—whether the office setting is remote, in-person or hybrid. In this way, it can become the platform for shaping a positive workplace culture. To get there, you’ll need to provide training that is interactive, engaging and relatable. It should go beyond blatant harassment to cover more nuanced interactions while offering employees guidance that enables them to know how to conduct themselves when faced with complex situations. To be most effective, education and training should model authentic, respectful behavior and focus on early intervention which can prevent harassment-prone behavior before it even has a chance to start.
This premise is backed up by SHRM which says that “When considering best practices for anti-harassment measures, the focus should be on prevention.” According to Lisa Nagele-Piazza, J.D., SHRM-SCP, “Waiting around until something rises to legally actionable is going to be a problem for your organization.”
3. Prioritize mental health
Mental exhaustion can create a breeding ground for harassment. Indira Hodzic with the Forbes Council, offers these suggestions for prioritizing mental health in the workplace.
- Tailor communication
Understand how your team communicates best and adjust your style accordingly. Get to know your team members as people, not just employees.
- Foster a sense of belonging
Ensure that everyone knows that their voice is important and give them one-on-one time to share their thoughts.
- Bring compassion
If a team member is not meeting expectations, approach the situation with compassion, understanding and a true desire to help them succeed.
- Enable honesty and vulnerability
Ensure that employees feel psychologically safe to talk about sensitive issues and share their personal truths.
4. Put the focus on improving fairness
In addition to feeling aligned, connected, mentally healthy and having a shared understanding of appropriate conduct in the workplace, employees need to feel that they work in an environment of fairness. In their recent study, Gartner defines a high fairness environment as one where employees perceive that their manager and organization treat them fairly. The Gartner 2021 Reimagine Employee Survey analyzed responses from 3,500 employees and found that they are demanding more fairness. “Creating a fairer employee experience will be the most important initiative for HR executives in 2022,” said Brian Kropp, chief of research in the Gartner HR practice. “To do this, organizations need to go beyond policies and develop philosophies.” To get there, Gartner suggests four factors to help employees feel fairness: being informed, feeling supported and receiving acknowledgement.
During this time of workplace transition, organizations have a choice about the kind of culture they want to shape. These four steps can help to carve the path away from an office environment prone to harassment and closer toward a workplace where both the organization and its employees can innovate, produce and thrive—now and into the future.