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How to Keep Internet Trolls Out of Remote Workplaces

  • January 24, 2021

At a lot of American companies, this is the first time colleagues have had to come to terms with working and socializing almost entirely online. There is likely no going back: Nearly half of the U.S. labor force is working from home full time, according to the Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom. And 67 percent of companies expect working from home to be permanent or long lasting, according to a study by SP Global, which provides financial analysis.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, everyone patted themselves on their back, like: ‘Oh, look, productivity has not fallen. We’ve transitioned to digital. We’ve done things we were seeking to do — streamline processes, move things online, decentralize decision making.’ But they were forgetting about culture,” said Jennifer Howard-Grenville, a professor in organization studies at the University of Cambridge. “Now the reality of that has hit.”

When message boards, chat rooms and Facebook become work tools, off-color humor is more common. Aggressive political discussions that would be out of place among cubicles now seem fine. The hierarchy of physical space disappears when everyone is a username: Confronting senior management does not require a walk and a knock on the door, and confronting colleagues does not require sitting next to them the rest of the day.

“I’ve seen bullying by text in the various kinds of internal instant messenger platforms, and we’ve seen an uptick in those kinds of complaints coming our way,” said John Marshall, an employment and civil rights lawyer in Columbus, Ohio. Harassment from colleagues in internal messaging platforms is not new, he added, but now there is more of it.

These new work tools were designed to look and feel like message boards and social media. Workers notice that and adopt similar behaviors, researchers say. The performative nature of Slack, where colleagues fuel discussions in vast chat rooms by adding emojis, for example, means frenzies grow and are hard to contain once they start.

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