Workplace Civility in the Age of COVID-19

Workplace Civility is a critical component of a healthy work environment. Workplace Incivility is defined by Sharone Bar-David as “Seemingly insignificant behaviors that are rude, disrespectful, inconsiderate, or insensitive, where the intent to harm is ambiguous or unclear.”  This can happen wherever people work, whether it is in person or virtually.

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only reinforced the importance of civility in the workplace, but it has impacted its implementation and practice as well.

Here are five tips to help businesses maintain workplace civility in the age of COVID-19:

Virtual environments

Consider how workplace incivility changes in a virtual environment and respond accordingly.

  • Be proactive by setting agreed-upon standards for virtual meetings (e.g. non-speakers are muted to eliminate background noises, visible distractions minimized, and smartphones are kept out of reach). 
  • Reinforce e-mail etiquette by setting standards for an expected response time (e.g. 24 hours) and encourage the habit of re-reading emails before sending to help improve communication and lower the rate of perceived incivility. 
  • Without a positive base, the risk of an email communication being interpreted in a negative way is much higher.

Recognize that the pandemic has everyone navigating ever-changing rules and circumstances.  Therefore, it is important to encourage, demonstrate, offer grace, and flexibility towards colleagues who make well-intentioned mistakes.

Regular check-ins

Take the time to regularly survey or check in with your employees to understand how they are feeling and determine their needs.  It is important to recognize that each employee’s worldview of the pandemic and the pandemic-era workplace is different.  Your employees are likely juggling family needs, pre-existing medical conditions, and other stressors that may impact their workplace performance.  Some employees may struggle to connect with their colleagues or clients through a computer screen while others are more comfortable and productive working from home. All of these feelings and responses are valid, and a civil workplace recognizes this.

Decision transparency

Be as transparent as possible about company decisions regarding the pandemic as well as how these decisions are meant to protect people.  Continue to do so as these decisions play out in the workplace (in-person or virtually), and acknowledge when a plan or initiative falls short of expectations or experiences setbacks.

Physical and psychological safety

Create conditions that support physical and psychological safety in the post-pandemic workplace.  Employers who demonstrate consistent recognition of this — through words and action — will be better able to establish and maintain a firm sense of psychological safety within their company.  Failure to do so may breed longtime and ultimately costly resentment from employees who feel their health was not made a priority, or that it was secondary to the company’s bottom line.

Company decisions regarding COVID-19 will likely be viewed by employees as a reflection of their perceived worth in the workplace and may linger for months if not years after the pandemic has passed.

Plan ahead for your company’s eventual return to an in-person setting. Ensure your team or company’s health and safety standards adhere to your state guidelines and that they are explicitly communicated to your employees.  Be prepared to enforce them with clients and customers as well.

Create team norms

Take time to develop “Norms” that your team can generate together to set expectations about workplace environment guidelines. These can be developed at the Organization level which apply to everyone in the company or at the Team level which are often department-specific and allow for nuances that apply only to that group.  This exercise can help employees hold each other accountable because the rule set is agreed to and clear.

Civility in Practice

Developing Team Norms:

  1. Write norms in a positive way.  Frame them through the lens of what you want to see happen.
  2. Keep the list short and specific and aim for no more than five to start.
  3. When developing Team Norms make sure that every team member has input and don’t mistake silence for approval.
  4. Post norms in places that the team can easily find them and be reminded of them
  5. Revisit the established norms every six months or more frequently in times of uncertainty.

Workplace Culture: You Get What You Grow

Having worked with companies for more than 25 years on leadership development, civility, and performance, I have learned one thing for certain: every company has a distinct culture, either by design (intentional) or by default (unintentional).

Micro-inequities, Bias and Incivility

I sometimes get asked about the relationship between micro-inequities and workplace incivility. With current racial tensions in the background, let’s take a look at this question.

When Reality Trumps Civility

In a recent workshop, as we were reviewing the list of behaviors that are considered workplace incivility, a manager exclaimed, “Are we now teaching people in the workplace basic manners? Is this what we have come to?!”

Hop, Skip, and Leap to Conclusions!

Do people really intend to be dismissive, belittling or inconsiderate when they engage in those seemingly insignificant behaviors that we refer to as workplace incivility?