Heading back to your office? Prepare for rudeness, study warns

If you’re heading back to a physical office for the first time in over a year and don’t know what to expect, a new study warns to prepare yourself for a bit more rudeness. Chalk it up to everybody being out of practice when it comes to social interactions and etiquette in the workplace.

The perception of rudeness creates more of it

Researchers from Portland State University report that employees who experience or witness incivility or rudeness in the workplace are more likely to then be rude to someone else. In this sense, rudeness around the office creates a “vicious cycle of incivility.” As more and more people head back to their places of work after a long period spent working remotely, study authors predict this cycle may speed up considerably. 

“People have gotten used to not having to engage in interpersonal communication as much and that can take an already distressing or tense situation and exacerbate it because people are out of practice of not having to have difficult conversations,” says study co-author Larry Martinez, associate professor of industrial-organizational psychology. “These spirals that we’re seeing might be stronger in a post-pandemic world.”

How do you define rudeness?

You may be wondering what exactly constitutes “rudeness” or “incivility.” While everyone is going to have their own perspective on such interactions, researchers say those words cover a broad spectrum of behaviors. Examples include:

  • openly criticizing a fellow employee in public
  • withholding important information
  • ignoring emails
  • arriving late to meetings
  • blatantly staring at one’s phone mid-conversation
  • straight-up ignoring a colleague

“Incivility is typically ambiguous and not very intense, but it has harmful effects all the same,” notes Lauren Park, a recent Ph.D. graduate in industrial-organizational psychology.

This research is noteworthy for a few different reasons. To start, it’s the first ever to investigate how and why rudeness spreads so easily in workplaces. Secondly, study authors opted to approach this topic from the perspective of the instigator (the person being rude). This unique take on the subject helped yield a number of interesting conclusions.

The study reports that employees with greater job autonomy are less likely to mimic or reciprocate uncivil behavior. Why? Workers with more control over their hours, assignments, schedule, etc. have more opportunities to cool off and reflect on rude interactions or seek out support of some kind. Older workers are also less likely to return rudeness with more incivility, as well as employees who work with a team that isn’t rude to one another.

The research team speculates that the past year and half spent working from home will likely lead to a big surge in rude interactions as more and more people return to physical office locations. We’ve all grown accustomed to ending conversations by simply closing out the Zoom chat or even muting the microphone to get some privacy for a moment. All of that goes out the window once people are back working side by side with one another.

Workers returning to work must re-learn relationships

“There will inevitably be some conflict as people might be meeting coworkers in person for the first time or they’ll be working together again in the same physical space,” Professor Martinez adds. “Relationships will need to be renegotiated in different kinds of ways and the likelihood that people are going to be able to address these situations in a conducive manner as compared to before the pandemic will decrease.”

So what can be done? Study authors stress the importance of employers setting up the proper support services. Every employer should have a system in place for receiving complaints, reacting to those reports, and preventing more rude interactions amongst co-workers.

“They’re at a high risk of starting these vicious cycles,” Park concludes. “Providing support is not only the right thing to do but it stops that behavior from spiraling through the organization.”

The return to in-person work promises to be a re-adjustment for pretty much everyone who found themselves fielding emails from their living room or kitchen for the past year and a half. As odd as working from home felt to everyone in March 2020, it’s going to be that much stranger for many to return to the office. Perhaps everyone can take comfort in the fact that we’re all rusty when it comes to workplace interactions.

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.