Signs of a Toxic Virtual Workplace

A toxic workplace isn’t just unproductive. It can also lead to a high turnover, interpersonal battles, stress, and ongoing disruptions. While we typically think of toxic workplaces as something that can only happen in a physical office, this definition is changing as the world moves to hybrid and virtual workspaces. With more companies shifting to virtual work full-time, what are the signs of a toxic virtual workplace?

Toxic workplaces are more than just a drain on your personal and professional life. They’re also bad for business. A reported 1 in 3 employees have left jobs because of workplace conflict, and 83% of employees wouldn’t report harassment if they saw it. These stats indicate a bigger problem in the workplace that many employers are willing to acknowledge.

The good news is toxic workplaces don’t happen overnight. They take time to grow, and this means leadership can take action early on to change the narrative. As more companies continue to go remote full-time, it’s never been more important to know the signs of a toxic virtual workplace before it begins. Have you spotted any of these signs below in your own digital workplace?

1. Poor Communication

First, the biggest sign of a toxic workplace in-person or online is a struggle with communication. This can look like insufficient or scattered communication. Similarly, some employees might feel overlooked entirely. When there isn’t enough clear communication, employees don’t know what’s expected of them. With remote work, this can have significant consequences on projects and productivity. 

Communication is a two-way street. This means both employees and management need open lines of communication, whether this means regular video or phone meetings, emails, or team software like Slack. If your team is struggling to communicate clearly, it’s time for a change quickly. Poor communication is a one-way ticket to toxic culture.

How to fix it: Communication needs a clear workflow. From scheduling to product launches, create a clear plan for updating team members, sharing progress, and meeting regularly. Better yet, make sure all remote employees understand which channels to use to share their updates (call, email, app, chat, etc). Make sure everyone in the company understands current strategies, goals, and their individual roles. 

2. Exclusion

Next, another sign of a toxic virtual workplace that particularly affects remote workers is exclusion. While everyone is physically present in an office, this isn’t always true for hybrid or remote workspaces. Things like team meetings, calls, and Slack channels are often dominated by a few key players. 

While this doesn’t mean the workplace is full of gossip and cliques, it does mean management needs to do more to help everyone feel included. This is especially true when maintaining a diverse and inclusive space for all. A reported 45% of women business leaders say it’s especially difficult to speak up in virtual meetings. Similarly, 1 in 5 women says they’ve felt ignored or overlooked in video calls. 

Because most communication happens on a computer screen, there’s a tendency for some to stay quiet and fall into the background. This could send the wrong message that these team members aren’t pulling their weight or they’re slacking off. In reality, the nature of remote work is leading to some feeling excluded unintentionally. 

How to fix it: Employers and supervisors should check in with all employees to make sure they feel comfortable contributing. Not everyone excels in crowded virtual meetings. Providing new opportunities to contribute, speak up, and share is key. 

3. Employee Turnover

Additionally, one of the worst signs of a toxic virtual workplace is rapid employee turnover. A high employee turnover rate means there’s likely disorganization, poor leadership, or little opportunity for growth. Turnover is bad news for businesses everywhere. The cost of replacing a single employee can range from one-half to 2 times their salary.

If your employees aren’t engaged with their work or their team, you risk higher levels of turnover. Consider what a big decision it is to leave a job. When people make this decision (and accept the uncertainty that comes with it), they’re motivated by something significant. As the saying goes, people don’t quit jobs. They quit managers. 

How to fix it: Conduct exit interviews to determine what led to this decision. More importantly, create a plan to address it, spending specific attention on valuing your existing employees. Another strategy is to send surveys to new hires at specific intervals, such as 30 days, 90 days, and so on. This ensures team members are onboarded successfully, and it provides a foundation for employee data long-term. 

4. Complicated technology

Another sign of a toxic workplace that’s especially problematic for remote teams is complicated, confusing technology. Whether you’re investing in the latest systems or using outdated practices, you need to make it as easy as possible for teams to stay connected. When tech tools don’t work or are too complicated, this leads to even more communication challenges. 

Those working from home also need the right things to do their jobs properly. If they’re stuck using outdated systems or without the right resources, this builds resentment. Because your teams rely on technology every day to get the job done, this is a non-negotiable. To combat this, many companies are allowing their remote teams to have a home office stipend to make sure they have the tools and tech they need. While this isn’t the right fix for every company, it’s important to be proactive rather than reactive about technology. 

How to fix it: Many companies mistakenly think they need the most expensive, fancy tech tools to create the best work environment. In reality, you just need the right things for your team. Not sure where to start? Ask your employees what systems work for them, then invest in training and tools. 

5. Burnout

A lot of things can lead to burnout, but one of the biggest causes is a toxic workplace. The World Health Organization describes burnout as a very real psychological syndrome, and it stems from chronic stress and poor management. When employees are burnt out, they experience feelings of exhaustion, negative feelings towards their career, and reduced productivity. 

Unfortunately, companies are doing worse than ever when it comes to burnout. A recent report found that 52% of all workers in 2021 feel burned out. This is up 9% from the previous year. Though burnout might not be as visible when employees are working from home, it still is a very real threat. 

An even more alarming statistic is that only 21% of workers feel they can have an open, productive conversation with their managers and HR about burnout. Not only do burned-out employees generate less growth and revenue for the company, but they’re not a positive part of a team. Increased rates of burnout are a strong sign that the workplace might be toxic. 

How to fix it: While many things contribute to burnout, it’s important to train front-line managers in what to look for. Keep lines of communication open so employees know they can ask for help if they need it. When signs of burnout are spotted, managers should be clear about what tasks need to be prioritized. More importantly, they should encourage employees to take breaks when needed and lead by example. 

6. Limited Growth

Next, recognizing employees’ growth and progress is an essential part of acknowledging the hard work they do. If employees feel underappreciated, they might think it’s time to leave soon. There are many ways for companies to invest in the growth of their teams and employees. From training, promotions, raises, and new assignments, all of these things add up in a big way. 

A survey discovered that employees who have been recognized are 63% more likely to stay within their job for the next 3 to 6 months. A lack of recognition sends the message that management doesn’t care about employees. With a message like that, why would you expect your employees to engage with their work?

How to fix it: It’s not enough to talk about employee recognition. You have to take real action. One great option is to create a clear recognition program for current employees to make sure you celebrate important milestones. 

7. No Work-Life Balance

Finally, workplaces that don’t have a healthy work-life balance are doomed to fall into a toxic cycle. While work-life integration is a more forward-thinking approach to work-life balance, the intention is the same; people need to create boundaries between work and personal life. 

Though many assume work-life balance is better when employees work remotely, the opposite is often true. When you live where you work, it’s more essential than ever to set clear boundaries. When employers expect team members to be available after hours or to skip vacation days, this crosses a line. Employees should always feel empowered (and encouraged) to lead a full life outside of work. 

How to fix it: Start with clear boundaries for managers and team members alike. This should include restricted employee hours, flexibility, and encouraging vacation time. 

Keeping Toxicity Out of the Home Office

Ultimately, many employers assume toxic workplaces are limited to formal office space. In reality, any workplace can be toxic, even if it’s entirely virtual. As more companies continue to shift to remote or hybrid work schedules, now is the time to set a strong foundation to avoid these red flags above.

Remember, toxic workplaces don’t happen overnight. These signs of a toxic virtual workplace are all avoidable, especially if you’re proactive (vs. reactive). How will you create a better digital space for your team? It’s never been more important to continuously get employee feedback to ensure you’re addressing issues before they grow.

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