Opinion: there's a reason why such unloveable toxic workplace characters as slackers, bullies and self-promoters want to go back to the office

The pandemic has changed the way many of us work, and the question is no longer when we will go back to the office but whether we will ever go back. This change in the way we work has many implications. Early in the pandemic, it was assumed that people who worked from home would be less productive than people working in an office. The opposite seems to have happened. People working from home tend to be more productive and get more done in fewer hours than they did in office settings. In part, this is because work from home involves fewer time-wasting activities, such as meetings.

Initially, it was also feared that workers would less collaborative and less creative working from home, but there is little evidence that this fear has come true. On top of everything else, employees are generally more satisfied working from home. While many employees express interest in spending some time at the office, there is little appetite for going back to the office full time.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, how working from home has changed the workplace with Limerick businessman Philip Mackessy and The HR Suite's Caroline Reidy

But there is one segment of the workforce that has been sorely tried by the shift away from working in the office: the office slacker. If you have ever worked in a group, either in the workplace or in a group project in school, you know all about slackers. There are always people who are happy to "let George do it". In a big, fast-moving project, slacking is almost comically easy. Slackers do not carry their weight on projects and someone on the team often has to cover their work at the last minute.

Remote work has changed everything. Now, it is often easier for everyone to tell who is and who is not completing their work, especially in offices that use some form of project-management software. Slackers who have made a career of hiding in the rush of project completion are finding it a lot harder to hide when working remotely because their number-one strategy, appearing to be busy, is just harder when working remotely.

When you are working remotely, people see the product and not the process. If your usually work process is to sit at your desk playing Solitaire (or Wordle) on your computer, this will not work out so well when working remotely. One of the early myths about remote work was that everyone would be a slacker. The data suggest almost the opposite, that remote work has probably made slacking less likely and less problematic.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's The Business, how will workplaces change because of the pandemic?

Slackers are not the only ones who are desperate for things to return to "normal" at work. Remote work is also hard on office bullies. When you switch to remote work, bullying can only be done in writing or on Zoom calls that might be recorded, and the last thing bullies wants is a permanent record.

Bullying can be subtle in an office environment, but subtlety goes out the window when it is all recorded for posterity. Similarly, managers who might have been tempted ignore bullying in an office environment might be more proactive now because the same record that can convict a bully can also highlight the manager's accountability for bullying.

There is one other type of toxic worker whose life had become more difficult as a result of the shift to remote work: the self-promoter. Like bullying, self-promotion seems a bit more obvious and less convincing when it is done in writing or in Zoom calls. "I am wonderful" is grating enough when it is encountered in an office conversation, but it gains an extra layer of obnoxiousness and pettiness when preserved in writing or in a recorded call. Self-promoters seem to have lost some of their opportunities to draw attention to themselves.

There has been lots of speculation about why many workers are more satisfied and more productive working remotely. One possibility is that they have much less exposure to slackers, bullies and self-promoters. This unplanned experiment in how to structure work might teach managers a useful lesson, that removing toxic workers from the workplace has many benefits. If managers are not willing to deal with toxic workers, they might consider removing everyone from the workplace. This can create its own stresses, but it will cut down on exposure to the toxic workers who do so much to make the office a living hell


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ