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The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on toxic workplace behaviours, such as presenteeism, face time, and a 24-7 work culture.SÉBASTIEN THIBAULT/THE GLOBE AND MAIL/The Globe and Mail

Which dysfunctional workplace habits are you planning to bring back to the post-pandemic office, along with the pictures of your kids, souvenirs from that overpriced sun vacation from a few years back and the special mug that says, “Martinis, No Longer Just for Breakfast”? The list of toxic options is extensive: Making sure everyone knows you’re the last to leave. Telling passive-aggressive “jokes” during staff meetings. Popping cold-and-flu medicine like candy so you can show up instead of convalescing at home. Pretending you don’t have a life outside of work that puts demands on your time.

None, you say? Is it possible that after two years of working from home, the in-person office experience will have improved almost organically—a kind of collective maturation process? The pandemic interregnum has definitely shattered some myths and prejudices, most notably the suspicion that “working from home” is actually code for doing anything other than work. But it has also shone a light on other toxic workplace behaviours, such as presenteeism, face time, and a 24-7 work culture. The realities of juggling work responsibilities with the pressing needs of young children or aging parents, for example, played out during Zoom and Teams sessions, rendering them specific and difficult to ignore. Could the attention these problems have attracted from human resources managers and other leaders translate into permanent change?

Matthias Spitzmuller, an associate professor of organizational behaviour at Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business who studies presenteeism, is hopeful companies will maintain the rules and procedures implemented during the pandemic to discourage workers from coming in sick. In his work with employers, Spitzmuller advises them not only to maintain clear policies, but also to provide sufficient paid sick days, encourage managers to lead by example, and do more than just pay lip service to encouraging work-life balance. He cites a growing stack of research showing that lack of sleep due to stress or overwork is strongly correlated with abusive or unethical behaviours on the job, not to mention diminished productivity. “What I really hope is that organizations can break the cycle of excessive overwork,” he says.

Certainly, that’s the signalling coming out of some large organizations these days. “Burnout is real,” says Anna Zec, Scotiabank’s senior vice-president of global HR services. “We want to drive a more standard schedule to some degree as we look to come back together. It’s about trying to find the right flexibility.” Brian Buchan, a spokesperson for the Human Resources Professionals Association, agrees policies that offer flexibility are a big theme for many employers right now. “When people do need to take time off, whether it’s unexpected childcare or eldercare emergencies, having workplace accommodations for that is a key thing we’re seeing,” he says.

But the task of building a better, more humane, workplace may have more to do with culture, leadership style and other imponderables than with specific policies. “A big piece of this is about whether managers are finally willing to accept that people actually will do their job, even if they’re not in their face,” says Lisa Cohen, associate professor of organizational behaviour at McGill’s Desautels Faculty of Management.

They may not have much choice. Employers large and small have faced pushback from employees who want to hold on to the flexibility of working remotely, and don’t relish returning to their uncomfortable and expensive commutes only to find unhappiness at the other end of that journey. And while by most indications the so-called Great Resignation hasn’t been nearly as pronounced in Canada as it has been in the U.S., the low-unemployment environment does provide more options for workers who might be tempted to pull up stakes. “There are organizations these days that were born as only work-from-home, and they are successful,” notes Cohen. “People have some choice about when they work and from where.”

This dynamic may, in fact, be the sword of Damocles that hangs over employers that seem to be snapping back to their pre-pandemic habits. Given the high costs of recruiting and onboarding new employees, as well as what seems to be an increasingly competitive war for talent, employers have plenty of business motivations to re-assemble the pieces of office life in such a way as to avoid the mistakes and toxicity of the past. That goal entails not just more flexibility but also new approaches to employee engagement, more progressive HR policies, and the promotion of leaders who truly understand that in the post-pandemic world of work, “my way or the highway” is a management philosophy that’s almost guaranteed to backfire.

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