The traditional signs of a toxic in-person culture are fairly obvious: long faces, snide remarks, groups of people huddled around the water cooler, who immediately stop speaking when the boss walks in.
In the current virtual world, toxicity is harder to pick up on. It sits beneath the surface of zoom fatigue and inbox overload. It’s less obvious, yet just as dangerous.
As many organizations are settling into indefinite virtual work, being aware of the ‘warning signs’ is an imperative.
Even if you you’re adopting the hybrid model (a mix on in-person and remote) or you’re going back into the office full time, you will still have colleagues, vendors, and customers who will continue to work remotely.
Here are four signs that a remote culture is leaning towards toxic and needs help:
1. More is said in the chat than in the actual meeting.
Sometimes this happens because meetings are too big. Other times, sidebar conversations happen live-time because a team lacks psychological safety. When there is consistently more said in Slack, Zoomchat, iMessage, etc. than the actual meeting, the dynamic can quickly snowball from unproductive to exclusionary.
2. Ghosting is acceptable, or even the norm.
We notice ghosting less in a virtual environment, but the impact is just as consequential. When someone is ghosted, either via unanswered email or (worse) ditched for a meeting, their engagement goes down. Feeling a lack of support, like you can’t count on your colleagues, makes it nearly impossible to care deeply about the work.
3. You have to be “online” (just for the sake of being online).
A green “online” dot next to someone’s name does not indicate any form of productivity, engagement, or value. Yet, as organizations shifted remotely, the “green dot” quickly became ‘proof’ that someone is working.
Some roles require clear online time, like customer support. Others allow more flexibility. When an organization becomes baselessly obsessive over “online time,” they send a signal that employees cannot be trusted to manage themselves. Higher performing organizations measure productivity by looking at work output, collaboration, and overall wellness.
4. Being kept in the loop —on everything.
One of our clients refers to this as the “FYI Waterfall.” In a virtual environment, it’s easy to throw the entire organization in the ‘bcc’ field. In an onslaught of “FYI” email, communication is much less thoughtful.
Messaging overload can descend quickly into confusion and burnout. To keep engagement high, communication must be pointed and thoughtful.
If you nodded along to the list above, it may be tempting to point the blame upward. Yet, in a virtual environment, it’s easier than ever to lead without formal authority.
You can move the needle on your organizational culture with intentional time management, clear communication, and modeling what a purpose-driven organization looks like.