Psychologists Say Hybrid Offices Will Increase 'Mean Girl' Behavior — Here's Why

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Courtney Dercqu156
Current Social Media Manager/Former Recruiter
April 15, 2024 at 8:25AM UTC

There has always been a subset of people who worked remotely. However, it wasn’t until the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic that it became what has popularly been described as “our new normal.” 

But with COVID restrictions rolling back, many companies have transitioned to a hybrid workplace model, in which employees split their time between their home and the office. While this might sound good on paper, experts are warning against potential organizational drawbacks such as an increase in clique mentality, which can be detrimental to productivity and mental health. 

“Issues with inclusion”

McKinsey & Company, one of the largest global management consulting firms, surveyed 100 executives about what the post-pandemic world looks like, with nine out of 10 organizations stating that hybrid offices are here for the long haul. For Melanie Collins, Chief People Officer of Dropbox, this has some drawbacks. According to Collins, hybrid work environments “could lead to issues with inclusion, or disparities concerning performance of career trajectory.” 

This is where the realities of the pandemic come into play — especially for women who have primarily been tasked with juggling both career and parenting responsibilities. While remote work sounds "flexible" or "more relaxed" on paper, a recent poll conducted by Marketplace-Edison Research found a huge disparity between men and women, reporting that 63% of women were directly involved with supervising their child’s remote education, as compared to only 29% of men. This stark gender disparity shows the harsh reality that women have been facing in an already anxiety-riddled year. Many feel pressured to work remote, and to juggle jobs beyond their full-time job while working from home.

An “us vs. them” mentality and the rise of office cliques

When companies switch to a hybrid model, it creates an unintended imbalance. It quickly becomes a separation between those who come into the office and those that don’t, which can create a toxic “us vs. them” mentality. 

Both teammates and upper management may look at those who come into the office as being more dedicated to their career than those who don’t, but rarely are outside factors like the one mentioned above considered when it comes to performance and career opportunities.  Rosie Campbell, a professor of politics at King’s College London, cites that previous research found that “part-time or remote workers tend not to get promoted.” This can cause those who work from home to feel like they have to start earlier or work longer hours to try and make up for a blatant form of bias, ultimately leading to burnout. 

Amy Butterworth, a psychologist and consultant at Timewise echoed this sentiment, stating that “...those with caring responsibilities — predominantly women — will be forced into difficult choices between unemployment or taking jobs with longer hours they cannot sustain.” Unsurprisingly, approximately 865,000 women exited the workforce at the start of the 2020 school year, according to a report by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. This was four times the number of their male counterparts. 

This, unfortunately, isn’t the only disadvantage of a hybrid office. When workers’ schedules vary, management may choose to hold meetings with whoever is in the office that day as opposed to those that should be involved in the decision-making and/or discussion. This can lead to the “out-group” — those that work remotely — feeling excluded from the rest of the team. Another common disadvantage has to do with typical office behavior. According to Butterworth, “we tend to gravitate to those with similar lives and experiences to us.” 

If you have a subset of employees who work from home due to their health issues, parenting responsibilities or natural introverted tendencies, they’re not going to be sharing the same experiences or outlooks as their extroverted counterparts who may prefer going into the office or because they are juggling fewer responsibilities. So, even if these workers didn’t originally share commonalities, the new working environment has generated a common ground that can foster new relationships. 

Unfortunately, this can also stir up negative behaviors. According to Butterworth, “most people in the office will turn to whoever happens there that day, to bounce ideas off and ask questions that then help inform their decisions. But they might not be the right people to ask.” In other words, in-office employees may turn to those who are nearby rather than those who are experienced, so it can cause further isolation and feelings of inadequacy if the right people are being left out of the right conversations. The combination of all this easily leads to burnout, gossip and other harmful workplace behaviors that may influence leadership if they’re not careful. 

How this is affecting leadership

As a leader, you’re put in a leadership role for a reason. You’re the captain of a ship, but in the age of COVID-19, sometimes it can feel like you’re lost at sea. It may feel increasingly inappropriate to share your thoughts on workplace practices or the state of your organization with your colleagues and reports, leading to feelings of isolation that are only magnified by the feeling that everyone else has a "clique" — and those cliques may not like you.

Statistics echo this, as resignation rates for those in managerial positions increased by 11.8% since the start of the pandemic. Like employees, leaders are just as susceptible to burnout — a unique type of workplace stress that involves a “state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.” 

In today’s working environment, many executives are feeling the frustration and burden of COVID-19 and feel that their jobs are taking over their personal lives. According to Tiffany Sun, the Chief Content Officer at Happify Health, “people who usually are seen as being in control are definitely feeling out of control... When you don’t have good answers for your team, it can make you feel ineffective.” This causes them to sit out of social situations, resulting in a disorganized hybrid office run by "influencers" instead of management. 

So, what can you do about cliques?

A successful hybrid office starts at the top, so those in leadership roles should take the time to practice self-care, in whatever capacity feels right to them. Sun recommends that managers and executives remember the acronym STAGER (Savor, Thanks, Aspire, Give, Empathize, Revive) and put it into practice. This could be as simple as recalling a funny joke or story throughout the day to help keep you grounded in moments of chaos and remember to have empathy for not just your staff, but yourself, as well. At the end of the day, these unprecedented times affect all of us on different levels and it’s necessary to recognize that. 

As a leader, taking care of yourself is integral to making sure everyone on your team is treated fairly, has access to the same career opportunities, and most importantly, that your hybrid office doesn’t fall victim to harmful cliques and gossip. 

Fortunately, there are several steps you can take to wrangle your office's "us vs. them" mentality:

1. Assess your workplace's cliques.

As mentioned above, cliques form for different reasons, with one of the most common being distrust for leadership or company culture. The COVID-19 pandemic generated fear amongst all of us, but especially those in workplaces who may have felt like they were in the dark as to their evolving schedules and safety precautions to ensure their health. This was further exacerbated by leaders, who in such uncertain times, seemed to have to make decisions at the drop of a hat or adapt to changing state laws and guidelines. 

When a clique forms out of distrust for leadership, it should be looked at as an opportunity to clear up any uncertainties. Oftentimes, cliques are not designed to start trouble, but rather have a safe space to discuss company issues and workplace stress. According to Cheryl Dixon, who is an Adjunct Professor of Strategic Communication at Columbia University, leaders need to be mindful of the need for communication. Per Dixon, “People want to know what’s going on within the company and within their industry — and they should hear it from their leaders so they are not filling in the blanks themselves.” 

2. Shut down harmful ones.

On the other hand, leadership needs to know when to shut down harmful cliques, especially when they are spreading misinformation around the water cooler. This can be done either by addressing the issue straight-on or reorganizing teams. 

According to Dixon, “not everything needs to be addressed immediately.” In such trying times, certain gossip and negative reactions may be the normal response to change and fear. Sometimes, it’s best just to let a clique and their gossip play out, especially if it’s based on a temporary situation. However, it’s best to know when to intervene. 

As an individual contributor, if you see overt negative behavior from a clique, like bullying or harassment, it's best to let management know they need to step in and shut the clique down. You can do this by anonymously filing a complaint to HR, or taking the issue up with a sympathetic leader. 

3. Use influential cliques for good.

While cliques sometimes have a negative reputation, they can be a useful method of communication. Like we mentioned above, cliques form over commonalities. While certain topics can be taboo, important discussions such as annual salary or limited work flexibility to care for children have been labeled as harmful gossip, when in reality, they’re conversations necessary to inspiring change in an ever-evolving world. 

Leadership has a responsibility to listen and address these concerns, as they are ultimately what will create a better hybrid office for everyone involved. This involves honest communication about how salaries are determined and opening a dialogue about expectations for everyone moving forward — leadership included. 

At the end of the day, a hybrid office can be successful, but it can take a turn downhill fast if the proper steps aren’t taken. A good working environment starts at the top, and in such uncertain times and rises in COVID-19 cases, transparency is more important than ever. When office gossip occurs, leaders need to use it as an opportunity to make positive changes that accommodate everyone’s lifestyle; after all, we’re all just doing the best we can. 

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