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The corona crisis is presenting societies everywhere with a reality that they’ve never seen or experienced before. The pandemic’s impact on public spaces is obvious. Just as important is its effect on workplace culture.

A new ‘work order’

We’re experiencing a new online work reality, where most of us are working from home without the usual contact with our colleagues. The interaction that we do have is through online meetings and calls.

Looking at workplace safety and security, you might expect that not being in each other’s physical presence would lead to a significant reduction in unwanted behaviour. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. What used to be a subtle comment about a female colleague’s outfit in the lunch room has moved online, and the lack of other co-workers being nearby to intervene can potentially increase this kind of unwanted behaviour.

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Risks in the new online work reality

It is crucial to remind ourselves that this pandemic is not business as usual – that the sudden migration of office cultures online does not erase the dynamics of power and micro-aggression that can underlie interactions between team members and co-workers.

More stress

Within the context of the workplace, our new reality is putting everyone under some kind of pressure. Whether it’s from job insecurity, a stressed-out boss that’s just a bit too much on top of things, or calls for being even more productive than usual.

More stress can lead to less attention to what we say and do towards others, can put us more on edge and can compound how we feel in response to the words and actions of others.

“It is crucial to remind ourselves that this pandemic is not business as usual.”

Even before the Corona crisis, these were risk factors for inappropriate behaviour and integrity issues at work. Nowadays, the lack of physical presence of co-workers to support or intervene increases all of these stress-factors.

The disappearance of the traditional bystander

Active bystandership has played a key role in offering critical support and intervention in such situations, by stepping in to directly intervene or by simply checking in with the person who experienced the harassment after the fact.

Bystander intervention has two important results: first, it challenges the normalisation of inappropriate or unwanted behaviour. Second, it provides an essential show of support to people who experienced such unwanted behaviour. In the current situation, this traditional active bystandership is impossible, creating a potential sense of insecurity in the work sphere, at the least.

The lack of co-workers nearby can leave a morality vacuum

Even for colleagues with the best intentions, it can be very difficult having to deal with the feeling that (moral) decision-making comes down to themselves now. We’re not just talking about the raised eyebrows our webcams don’t pick up when someone makes a nasty comment. Not being able to walk by your work-buddy to do a quick check before making a tough decision is something we’re all experiencing in one way or another.

As a result, more colleagues are putting or finding themselves in uncomfortable interactions with each other. And they are looking for tools to safely de-tangle and de-escalate these situations remotely.

“Our co-workers set our company’s moral compass, checking or reinforcing behaviour as a form of external accountability.”

Even more, many people are now noticing pain points in their organisational cultures and are seeing these unique times as an opportunity to not only intervene but to build a more respectful and inclusive company culture as a whole.

An opportunity for active bystandership

As we all navigate the disruption and whirlwind brought on by COVID-19, the need for active bystanders in the workplace is therefore greater than ever.

Why? Because a lack of stepping up and speaking out by co-workers – intentionally or not – can lead to normalisation of unwanted behaviour in the workplace. And because we know that the support or intervention of colleagues not only offers a sense of security; our co-workers also set our company’s moral compass, checking or reinforcing behaviour as a form of external accountability

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5 tips to promoting a speak-up culture during a global pandemic

So, how can we create (online) speak-up cultures at our workplaces that build on the important work that many of us were already doing before our lives moved online? Here are 5 practical tips to start with:

1. Be people-focussed

Invest in your colleagues by planning meetings that aren’t just results- or work-oriented, but people-focussed. Staying involved with each other as people and not just co-workers is the key to workplace safety and happiness, whether it’s online or offline.

2. Practice tone at the top and active bystandership

Management should set a positive example, creating a tone at the top. Create a safe work atmosphere by being a safety factor yourself. Invite people to raise their concerns to you and take these concerns seriously. Show your employees that you also struggle with decision-making in these trying times. Setting a tone of respect and approachability from the top is a key step in encouraging active bystandership across your entire company. Appreciate the fact that your employees are the first to see risks and unethical or inappropriate behaviour. You’ll want to hear it when they do.

3. Pay attention to which voices you’re hearing from, and which ones you’re not

Ask yourself if women, queer people, and people of color are participating in the conversations in a balanced way. Or are they being dominated by overrepresented groups in your organisation?

4. Use the company-wide channel as a tool

If someone is behaving inappropriately, call it – the behaviour, not the individual – out in the main channel. Let everyone, including the individual who made the comment, know that what they’ve said isn’t acceptable in your workplace’s culture. In other words, act on behaviour that is considered inappropriate.

5. Show empathy

Contact the person who was being targeted or who seems upset by the behaviour, and let them know you think the behaviour is inappropriate. Let them know you have their back and will support them in addressing the problem. Also contact and show empathy for the person whose behaviour was deemed inappropriate – not to diminish the acts, but to let them know that you condemn certain behaviour, not the person behind it.

So step up and speak out!

Now, more than ever, is the time to promote a step-up and speak-out culture. We must do this not only because it’s the right thing to do – but because your colleagues need bystanders to support them as they face an unprecedented rise in their social vulnerability. These are trying times for everyone – but they are not a pass for inappropriate behaviour. The time for colleagues to step up and support each other is now.