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Jenny Baker

Remote Work Incivility: I Don’t Get No Respect

Nora P. Reilly and Kasey V. Warren

 It is no surprise that the average number of remote workdays has nearly doubled since the fall of 2019 (Jones, 2020). Although a home office has such notable advantages as a nonexistent commute and looser dress code, professional norms for our teleworking interactions are still evolving. Consider the following scenario.

It’s Friday at 1:00 pm. Rodney is looking forward to an early dinner and a movie. He has been waiting for an email from a remote coworker, Chris, that he needs to complete his part of a project by the looming deadline of 5:00 pm. He sent several texts and emails over the past two days to find out its status. No reply. Rodney tends to be a bit anxious; this isn’t helping. Perhaps Chris misunderstood the due date? Chris seemed distracted during a videocall the previous week when tasks were assigned; his camera was off for most of it. However, Rodney’s two voice messages today also went unanswered. The recalcitrant email arrives at 5:15 with the note “HERE!!” Rodney works four more hours to do his part and submits the final product. He didn’t sleep well and, on Monday, Rodney’s supervisor questions him about his time management.

This almost sounds like a scene from The Office during the COVID-19 pandemic, except that the combination of video, email, text and phone improprieties is improbable. Right?

Perhaps. Research on the incidence of remote work incivility is lacking, though incivility at work has long been a common experience (Cortina et al., 2001). Discourtesies may be overt, or they may be subtle. There is a fine line between remote work etiquette and remote work incivility. As newly remote workers first hunkered down for an extended quarantine, it was reasonable to expect that crying babies, keyboard cats, and other domestic interruptions would need to be tolerated from technological amateurs. Norms for interaction with them were not established. Shared expectations for appropriate tele-behaviors are in progress; remote work etiquette is a “thing,” and we should expect that manners can be learned. Discussion of such issues now abound on the Internet with advice on how to reduce the uncertainty associated with the decorum of remote operations (Blome, 2020). The popular press also weighs in on manners. For example, should cameras be “on” during videoconference calls (Martin et al., 2020)? Although there are always reasons to occasionally become invisible, the answer is “yes.” Should one multitask while in a virtual meeting (Murphy, 2020)? No. Stay present. It’s your job. Within what timeframe and at what hour should one be expected to respond to work email (Grant, 2019)? Although the ever-increasing volume of our electronic correspondence is a challenge, conscientiously balancing business necessity and respect for the sender remain an issue from our prepandemic days. In fact, one should assume that anything that was rude in a face-to-face interaction is just as rude remotely.

But which improprieties fall beyond manners? Within the field of psychology, incivility is disrespectful behavior that shows a lack of consideration for others (Andersson & Pearson, 1999). It is discourteous, but it is not aggression per se in that its intentionality is nonspecific (Cortina et al., 2020). Rude behavior may be attributed to simple ignorance or inexperience of the offender or, perhaps, to a more acute sensitivity of the recipient. Like beauty, incivility may lie in the eye of the beholder—particularly if said beholder is higher in such traits as neuroticism (Sliter et al., 2014). However, perceptions of minor incivility may better belong within the realm of etiquette violations. Although a single incidence of incivility may just be attributed to someone having a bad day and as unintentional, repeated incivility may cross the threshold of being perceived as intentional and, as such, an aggression. Turning a cold shoulder, failing to share credit (or blame) for collaborative work, ignoring solicited input, and insults are but a few examples. It should go without saying that the more hostile the transgression, the more likely it would violate established HR policy or law. Such behaviors would include sexual harassment, bullying, and abusive supervision.

Is remote work incivility different? It seems that the answer is “maybe.” Because we are talking about work situations and employees are not anonymous—as they may otherwise feel on the Internet—rules of civil engagement tend to stay in place. We are still social animals. However, it may be that the use of email or even a lack of meaningful eye contact via a webcam could result in a feeling of detachment or disengagement from others; we may become desensitized by the technology that is supposed to connect us. Research on computer-mediated communication suggests that a form of toxic online disinhibition can occur in the seeming absence of an accountable human presence (Suler, 2004). This type of disinhibition may be evidenced through flaming behavior, that is, hostile expressions toward other organization members in online communication (Lapidot-Lefler & Barak, 2012). These expressions are typically textual and include such elements as swearing, negative comments, threats, and sexually inappropriate language. However, flaming may also include the use of capital letters, excessive use of exclamation points or question marks, or even the use of color suggestive of anger or frustration. Flaming is rare but clearly crosses the boundary between incivility and aggression.

To what else might remote work incivility be attributed? Characteristics of an environment or situation seem to better predict perceptions of incivility than do characteristics of the person in on-site work (Dhanani et al., 2019). There is little reason to think that a virtual setting would not have the same effect. Establishing a culture of civility at work is critical to preventing a downward spiral of offenses (Meinert, 2017). Leaders and managers must model remote civility, define and reward acceptable conduct, and enforce documented standards to address either repeated or severe transgressions. The consequences of failing to address remote work incivility through established HR policy may be dangerous. There is already evidence that perceived discrimination occurs in the virtual work world for both race and gender (Daniels & Thornton, 2019; Lim & Chin, 2006). We also do not know if tolerating remote incivilities now will increase deviant behaviors by employees who later return to a face-to-face employment setting.

What do we know? Face-to-face incivility is both more common and more detrimental than cyber incivility (Kowalski et al., 2018). Nonetheless, cyber incivility affects work performance, attitude, mood, and physiology (Lim & Teo, 2009; Scisco et al., 2019) . Performance is compromised, psychological distress is increased, and sleep is lost as a consequence of even unintentional slights (Demsky et al., 2019; Giumetti et al., 2016; Park et al., 2015). Employees exposed to remote work incivility report being more likely to quit and engage in counterproductive behaviors (Lim & Teo, 2009). Turnover is costly, as is workplace deviance, from both personal and organizational perspectives.

In the opening scenario, Rodney was stuck between a rock and a hard place; in other words, between his coworker and his supervisor. Would it have mattered if Chris had been new to the team? Would it have mattered if his supervisor had not jumped to conclusions? Sure. Organizations need to ramp up their handbooks to specifically address remote work requirements. They then need to enforce those policies. Employees deserve a touchstone for their expectations. Employment law—and violations of it —have not changed (Hoey et al., 2020). Management strategies that promote a positive work culture in a remote environment may need to. It’s all about respect.


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Nora P. Reilly, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Radford University and a long-standing organizational consultant. She enjoys practicing the information she preaches; specifically, change management, organization development, and issues related to quality of work life. Her contact information is nreilly@radford.edu.

Kasey V. Warren, MS, is a talent consultant for EY and recently received her master’s in I-O from Radford University. Her current duties are in the areas of mentoring and general career development. She is working remotely—but with great civility—from Blacksburg, VA.


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