Could remote work spark a rise in workplace harassment?

Remote work might bring with it a raft of benefits, but with professional and personal boundaries blurred, experts fear it could also fuel a rise in online harassment


In all sorts of ways, the widespread switch to remote work over the past year has been lauded as a major boon. It has created greater flexibility and freedoms for employees and eliminated long, stressful commutes. According to some studies, it has even boosted productivity, despite the backdrop of a global pandemic. 

But when it comes to workplace harassment, there are concerns remote working may have the opposite effect. 

According to a report published by King’s College London in January, the migration to online communications and the blurring between personal and professional boundaries has meant exposure to workplace sexual harassment has risen drastically. In addition, with a 52 per cent increase in work communications during evening hours, according to Microsoft, and an increase in one-to-one online meetings, it is becoming increasingly difficult for managers to monitor all workplace interactions.

“It changes the game,” says Gemma Dale, wellbeing and engagement officer at the University of Manchester, and co-founder of The Work Consultancy. Adoption of video conference calls means we’re seeing into each other’s homes, for example, and while many parents are juggling home schooling and work, they may have to send messages or emails in the evening. Also many people are having to share personal numbers if they haven’t been given a work phone. 

“All this means harassment has the potential to come into our homes. And some harassers may even be emboldened by this,” says Dale.

While remote working eliminates common physical forms of harassment, such as inappropriate touching, brushing up against people or breaching personal space, it opens up other ways that harassment could be perpetuated, she says. 

This could include inappropriate online communications, cyberbullying or gaslighting, a type of abuse where perpetrators purposely cause victims to question their own recollection of events by lies or manipulation, such as claiming credit for their work or setting unrealistic deadlines. 

This can be hard to manage for human resources teams and senior leadership. “It is not physically possible to stop inter-employee contact and for task-achieving purposes contacts may well be necessary, as it would be in a ‘normal’ office,” says Ian Ashcroft, associate director at procurement specialists Hawtrey Dene. “However, constant contact from one employee to another could be interpreted as harassment or even bullying.”

Where incidents do occur, the more isolated nature of working from home can make the decision to report more complex too, says Karen Beardsell, an independent HR consultant and former director of HR at Stonewall.

“Most people who experience harassment might sense-check with a colleague or speak to a member of the HR team before raising an issue more formally,” she says. “These informal chance conversations are not available anymore.” 

That is an additional blow when harassment takes on an insidious form, such as gaslighting, where victims often question themselves. A  2019 survey on Twitter found 12 per cent of employees are not even sure if they’ve been the victim of gaslighting. 

The importance of company values

So what should HR teams and senior leaders do to ensure the rise in remote work is not accompanied by an increase in harassment? 

One place to start is by proactively reiterating and reinforcing company values and expectations, says Ed Mayo, chief executive at charity Pilotlight. “Values underpin all behaviours,” he says. “That’s the most sure way to deal with these behaviours, not as and when problems occur, but by investing in and developing a positive culture, which gives people a reference point as to what behaviours fit and work well, and what indeed might not.” 

Leadership needs to be seen to model these behaviours too, he points out. The failure to do just that led to the resignation of the UK chairman at KPMG in February, when he was captured on a video call telling staff “don’t sit there and moan” about the pandemic and disregarded unconscious bias as “crap”.

Next, businesses need to ensure all employees feel able to speak up. In some respects, remote work can boost the incentive to report, says Lisa Bell, founder at harassment specialists Tell Jane, as staff are speaking up from a safe home environment. But in other ways, the mechanisms for how to do so can be more easily lost. 

The most sure way to deal with these behaviours is not as and when problems occur but by investing in and developing a positive culture.

“Companies need to signpost people to where to report and reassure people via communications that if they do raise a complaint it will be taken seriously and handled appropriately,” says Bell. 

This is even more crucial when, as is the case with many small and medium-sized enterprises, there is not a designated HR team or director and staff must report complaints to senior leadership, some of whom may also be the subject of the complaint. It is important companies demonstrate nobody is beyond reproach and that it takes all complaints seriously.

“I don’t think enough companies have done that during lockdown, when it comes to being proactive in the management of their culture and conduct,” says Bell.

Creating a plan to stop virtual workplace harassment

Not all reports of harassment, bullying or gaslighting arise from the victims themselves. This means organisations should also offer bystander training, says Dale, educating staff on how to spot what is and is not appropriate. The importance of this type of training is even greater during remote work as “the signals may be weaker when it comes to how to spot this”, she says.

“So much of our communication is body language and it can be much harder to pick up through a screen,” Dale explains. “But you can still be a remote bystander. If you see behaviour in a group chat that’s offensive or inappropriate, or you’re in an online meeting and see someone being bullied, you should be encouraged to either escalate it in the room or report it afterwards.” 

When an incident is reported, HR teams or senior leaders need to ensure they have a clear plan in place for what happens next, urges Bell. In some ways remote work can facilitate investigations as material or messages are often saved and can then be used as evidence. Also there are no legal issues in conducting disciplinary procedures or grievances via Zoom. But too often even large organisations do not know what to do when they are faced with a complaint of harassment. 

“Leaders don’t like to talk about this stuff, they see it as their dirty laundry,” says Bell. “But it’s happening in all organisations and I always encourage those I work with to deal with this constructively.”

Regardless of the trajectory of the pandemic, remote work is set to be a mainstay of workplace culture for the foreseeable future. Failure to act on workplace harassment could see companies failing to reap its many potential benefits.