Resources, Guides, and Case Studies

Communication in the Virtual Workplace

Case Study
On the team’s group chat, someone shared a photo of a model.

“Nice!”
“Hot!”
“OK guys this is not the place.”
“Lighten up, Grace.”

The team leader only saw it a few hours later after the chat had died down. She ignored it. No biggie.Then it became a thing.

Every now and again, one of the guys would post a photo of a model. There would be some appreciation…  and like clockwork Grace would say it was not cool. Soon the jokes were about Grace’s predictable reaction.

One day, Grace spoke to the team leader and said she was disappointed nothing had been done about the situation.

“The guys are just blowing off some steam. It’s no big deal. Boys will be boys. You shared a cat video recently. Same thing.”

Virtual Spaces are Workspaces

Because we spend so much of our personal lives in virtual spaces like chat rooms and social media, it can be easy to bring the same casual attitudes to virtual workspaces.

Behaviour that would be considered unprofessional in our physical office space often happen in our “online offices” because of the habits we have developed when using chat with friends. Slang, shorthand, grammer, memes… there is a culture to personal chat spaces that regularly shows up when we work online.

But such chatter isn’t always appropriate.

So where do I draw the line?

The question to ask is: should anyone have to see or participate in such exchanges as part of their job?

Sure some people like it. But does everyone? Is it making some people uncomfortable?

Is the image or joke at the expense of some group or individual? Does it objectify people or assume some kind of stereotype or bias? Is it inclusive for everyone or could it be divisive? Could it be insensitive, insulting, or offensive to someone with different values or background?

The easiest way to manage such situations is to set clear guidelines on professional behaviour and make sure everyone understands that virtual workspaces are still part of the workplace.

How do I know if a virtual space is part of the workplace?

For some organisations this is easy because digital communication is restricted to internal platforms.

However it is not always clearcut. If it’s not clear, ask these questions:

  1. Why was the space set up? Was it to facilitate communication for something related to work?
  2. Who is in the group? Is it mostly colleagues?
  3. What is the cost of leaving the group? Will leaving be damaging to working relationships? Will leaving mean a person risks missing important info? Will leaving impact networking, bonding and hence career opportunities?

If you answer “Yes” to any of these questions, the virtual space may be considered the workplace.

Factors that do not matter:

  1. Whether or not the device used is paid for by the organisation.
  2. Whether or not someone is using a personal or work account to participate in the space.

So, for instance, the argument “This is my phone and my whatsapp account so I can say what I want” is not a valid reason to act unprofessionally in a whatsapp chat group with colleagues.

Likewise, say a chat was set up for a particular project and after the project was over, everyone stayed in and it became a social forum, it is *still* the workplace.

Humour is a good way for people to bond. Isn’t this an overreaction? Political correctness kills all fun!

Humour absolutely is a great way to connect and reduce stress. But if the humour is at someone’s expense, then you have to ask who is bonding and who is being left out?

In the story above, the example given was one that, in some companies, would be considered sexual harassment. But sexual content is not the only kind of communication that crosses the line. Jokes and comments can also be disrespectful or exclude. If a comment touches on gender, race, body type, sexuality, religion, disability… or any other form of identity, there is a danger that it may be hurtful.

As a manager, WHEN should I draw the line?

Immediately.

Communication in virtual spaces is fast. If someone says or shares something that is inappropriate, the team leader needs to call it out right away in order to signal to everyone on the chat what the standards are. Team members should also feel empowered to call out inappropriate behaviour.

Saying that, it is important to do so in a way that maintains respect for everyone, even the offending poster. The whole point is to ensure the space is one that is respectful.

“Hey all: a gentle reminder that this kind of [comment/post] is *not* acceptable.”

“I know this is meant as a joke but it is a misuse of this chat. Please don’t put me in the position of having to come down on you for not following policy on this.”

“This post is not appropriate here. Please delete it.”

It is better to draw the line sooner rather than later or some people will feel they are being treated unfairly.

“Why is my post not OK but his post was OK?” 

“You’ve never said anything before so it seemed fine. So now you are just picking on me.”

Likewise if the boundaries are not set for the entire group (say because you only speak one on one to the offender) then others might think the behaviour is condoned.

What is the best practice?

Ideally, managers should set communication guidelines before there is an incident.

  • Keep communication professional and on point
  • Ensure your comments are respectful and inclusive
  • Do not share any media that is not necessary for work
  • Organisation rules on communication apply to virtual spaces

And as an ongoing practice, use nudges and clear communication to ensure everyone clearly understands what is acceptable.

Call it out. Call it early. Maintain respect.

Discussion Questions
This is an example of the kinds of questions Catalyse may use in facilitated group discussions on this topic.
What was wrong with what was shared? Should Grace accept that seeing these pictures is just part of her job? What would have been a better way for the team leader to handle the situation?

If Grace had never objected, would it have been OK to not intervene?

Given that the team leader is female and she was not upset by the images, does that mean it’s OK?

What could team members have done? What factors play a part in someone feeling empowered to speak up or not?

Does your organisation have policies that would apply to this situation?