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  • Writer's pictureRobin Rosenberg

Is Incivility Different with Remote Work?

Back when we worked in offices, we knew the contours of workplace incivility: the kinds of actions (and inactions) that felt disrespectful, were most often born from bias or lack of awareness, and cost companies time, money, productivity, and turnover—not to mention potential legal costs. Such actions also cost employees heartache.

Back when we worked in offices, we knew the contours of workplace incivility: the kinds of actions (and inactions) that felt disrespectful, were most often born from bias or lack of awareness, and cost companies time, money, productivity, and turnover—not to mention potential legal costs. Such actions also cost employees heartache.

With remote working likely to be with many of us for months, and likely as a permanent, if occasional option for some once the pandemic is over, what does remote incivility look like? How is it similar to and different than in-office civility?


First, let’s be clear that work-from-home (WFH) during the pandemic isn’t the same thing as WFH during “normal” times, and can be different from remote work, in which one or more employees who are part of a team (whether fully integrated into the team or only “part time” attached to the team) but who work in a different location from the team (and generally can only participate “remotely” via Slack, email, or videoconferencing while the rest of the team is co-located for meetings in person). Employees doing remote work may be working from a remote office, or WFH.

During the pandemic, on top of the worries about loved ones, finances, and job security, there’s the added stress, mental load, and physical disruption incurred by roommates/children also “working” from home—or at least being at home, and for many, a lack of a real “office” at home from which to work. Some people are relegated to a corner. For those living alone, there is the loneliness. In one nationally representative sample, 80% of respondants reported significantly more stress and anxiety as a result of the pandemic, and employees reported about 45% of workdays were lost due to distractions, and to worrying about issues related the pandemic. So WFH during the pandemic isn’t the best test case for the types of incivility that arise from interactions among people, at least some of whom are working remotely.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, as many employees as are able to are working from home, and most had formed relationships before the pandemic. Going forward, people will be developing working relationships with colleagues with whom they may never meet in person.

Remote Work: What We Know Already

Many teams have had the experience of one or more members not being able to physically present for meetings or day to day interactions. What have we learned about incivility from these interactions?

1. When remote workers are in a minority at a meeting, they generally have a less good experience than there in-person colleagues. As all of us have now experienced with videoconferencing from home, such meetings, compared to in-person meetings, can be more tiring when we fully participate. We have to pay more attention to non-verbal cues, and generally only see faces, so we miss all the little bodily movements and gestures that convey information about when someone is bored, anxious, trying to speak. Thus, remote workers can either participate fully, but get more fatigued, or not participate fully, either “zoning out” unless called on, or multi-tasking. In turn, others at the meeting may be able to tell the remote person isn’t fully engaged and treat him or her, accordingly, furthering the feeling of being left out.

2. Meetings in which one or more people are on video make it harder for people to know the impact of their actions, particularly negative ones. When we are unintentionally uncivil to someone—because of something we’ve said or didn’t say—it can be harder to know how it landed.

3. Being remote, or working with someone who is remote, can make it harder to attain or maintain deeper collegial relationships. Or, it can take longer to get those relationships to a level that would happen more quickly when working together in person. It will depend on the particular people, how much effort they make to connect, and how much they are—by necessity—collaborating.

4. When the remote workers are from a different culture, the probability of incivility increases. Even when people from different cultures work together in person, the opportunity for actions and inactions that unemotionally feel disrespectful are numerous. With remote workers, particularly if they are numerically or culturally in the minority, it is even easier for actions to feel uncivil.


1. Work together to figure out which media to use to collaborate, check in, to create: Slack, video, email, phone calls? As the remote workers what can be done to help them feel more a part of things and think about what those who aren’t WFH can do to feel more collegial with their remote colleague. Good working relationships go a long way to giving colleagues the benefit of the doubt when something potentially “negative” comes up. When most everyone is WFH, it’s the same. Should there be happy hours? Must everyone attend?

2. Be respectful about people’s time and attention. With video meetings (or any meetings), leaders should be clear that people shouldn’t multi-task during meetings. Those multi-tasking aren’t fully engaged, and it can feel (and may be) disrespectful to everyone else at the meeting. Of course, the flipside is to be respectful of people’s time and so if someone’s full participation isn’t needed at the meeting, why is he or she there? People leading meetings can be respectful by making sure those who need to be at the meeting are invited and those who don’t need to be at the meeting aren’t invited, or if invited, it’s clear why they’re there or they only come in for part of the meeting.

3. Communication. Leaders and managers should communicate regularly with everyone, particularly keeping in mind remote workers or those who may be peripherally involved in the team but who should be kept in the loop. That said, don’t spam people. Honest, direct, caring communication is key. Related to that is communicating clarity about goals so that as people collaborate, they are coordinated, working individually and together toward a collective goal. Prioritizing—and communicating about priorities—are crucial.

• In “normal” times, productivity typically goes up. Of course, there is a selection factor there: People who most desire or are satisfied with remote work are likely to be the ones who asked for it, or who stayed in a remote work job.


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