‘Virtual’ harassment is a real thing

By Lillian Hartgrove, State Board of Education Chairman
Special to the UCBJ

Since the COVID pandemic hit the U.S. in March 2020, employers have been navigating the difficult straights between maintaining safe workplaces (as required by OSHA and related state enforcement entities) and staying afloat both operationally and financially. For many employers (especially white-collar employers), remote working has proven to be a viable method by which to maintain operational readiness and productivity, and at the same time, maintain a safe workplace. But, as with most “solutions” there are inevitably both unintended consequences and new issues to address.

The Good.      Our general observation (both internally within our law firm and with our clients) is that remote working has been an effective tool in helping businesses remain operationally ready and productive. In fact, many businesses are shedding some or all of their commercial real estate obligations and related overhead expenses, and consequently, have no intentions of ever returning to a pre-COVID operational platform. Others are going to use an approach that requires employees to work in-person for a portion of the work-week and work remotely for the balance. On the whole, employees generally like the remote work platform, assuming they have the necessary Wifi access, a functional computer, and the requisite safety software to protect company information.

The Bad.        Aside from the issue of protecting private and confidential information from hackers and malware, one of the most noticeable side-effects of remote working is a loss of interpersonal connection with co-workers and clients, which is potentially problematic on multiple levels, but especially problematic in terms of maintaining healthy and productive interpersonal relationships. Maintaining such relationships (both internally and externally) is critical for both personal and company success. By default, employees have increased their reliance on email, text messages, and social media platforms, as opposed to in-person communications. Obviously, phone usage is still common, but not as effective as being in-person. And Zoom-type platforms are very efficient and helpful, but still not the same as being in-person.

The Ugly.       Based on the current trends in our society, there is a growing intolerance for those who think differently than others on various sides of the political spectrum. That intolerance and lack of willingness to consider opposing points of view has quickly invaded the workplace causing significant tension, especially as to issues of race, sex, LGBTQ, gender identify, religion, disabilities, and relations between generations.   

When you factor into this equation the social discord in the U.S. that has existed for some time and which has been inflamed by the last several election cycles, the George Floyd scenario, multiple international issues (GWOT, mass migration, weather-related disasters, etc.), the increasing role and reliance on technology in all phases of life, and the COVID pandemic issue, our society and workplaces have changed and are changing rapidly and on many levels – some for the better and some for the worse. One of the most obvious negative changes is the growing misuse of social media platforms. Although well intended, social media platforms have too often  become platforms that encourage and perpetuate bad and irresponsible behavior.

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