Tackling ‘office rage’: how to meet conflict with compassion

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Article by Susie Al-Qassab, Partner at Hodge Jones & Allen

Returning to the office and physically working alongside colleagues once more has not been a straightforward journey for some. We have seen a stark rise of ‘office rage’ related issues in workplaces.

Our ‘new normal’, familiar but indisputably different, remains fraught with the anxieties of the pandemic. Anxieties are, of course, deeply personal but can be compounded by the actions of others, especially when they have different levels of adherence to mask-etiquette, vaccine uptake, and social distancing to ourselves. Not to mention that staff have generally been working in the relative peace and quiet of their dining tables, one step removed from the boss and the team, whose physical presence now seems to grate where it never did before.  This is fertile ground for emotional disputes and, in some cases employers, staff, and union are beginning to butt heads – resulting in ‘office rage’.

For the first time in over a year, many office workers are faced again with the unique dynamic of colleague relationships. It is maze of social politics in itself. But at the

centre of many of our water-cooler conversations, beneath Sunday night television and weekend plans, the COVID pandemic persists as a main talking point.

The problem is exacerbated by an absence of clear government guidance on managing the pandemic workplace. Without a defined system of rules, office disputes on COVID-related issues now hinge on personal opinion and individual decisions. Vaccination status is proving to be the most divisive topic in the workplace. As a marked and morally-charged divide, opinions on vaccines are inevitably aggravating pre-existing tensions and sparking new ones as workers return to shared spaces.

What can be done about office rage?

We believe that a heavy-handed disciplinary process only causes more disruption within an already disruptive set of circumstances.

Establishing clear grievance policies that encompass informal resolution and sensitive mediation of interpersonal issues are far more productive. Early, empathetic intervention is beneficial to everyone: it understands employees as individuals whilst enabling group efficiency. Rather than quietly managing individual complaints, it is a matter of actively cultivating a happy and communicative environment for all.

After all, happy employees are more productive. This might be the key lesson learned as we reflect post-pandemic. The rapid adoption in working from home disproved criticisms that it would create a less productive workforce. Rather, the degree of agency offered by flexible working allows self-care to be more seamlessly incorporated into working life, facilitating enthusiasm and efficiency.

Office culture must build upon, not bulldozer, this progress. As workers return to the office, naturally they will expect to maintain some of this agency. This has the potential to come into conflict with the working patterns of others and differing attitudes towards the pandemic. In order to resolve disputes and handle misconduct claims, employers would do well to remain sensitive to the diverse needs and attitudes borne of the pandemic.

A clear grievance procedure must tackle complaints in their early stages to prevent a lengthy bureaucratic process that unnecessarily compounds employee discontent and, in turn, stifles workplace productivity. Listening to complaints with immediacy, not bureaucracy, saves time that would otherwise be expended by company resources at a later stage. Notably, it saves on the £28.5 billion yearly expense by companies on workplace conflict, often through formal processes.

‘Office rage’ is no temporary turbulence. The pandemic has fundamentally changed the structure of office life. It is fresh ground for dispute and an unclear context for workers’ rights. This also requires a re-think of how employers should be supporting their employees. The old Employee Handbook is no longer fit for purpose and needs to be rejuvenated too. It is for each business to re-evaluate what kind of workplace culture they want to create and what they stand for as a business, just as the world has reflected and reprioritised over the last 18 months, and to make policy accordingly. This could mean dialling up support for employee welfare; implementing policies to support volunteering or charitable giving; it could be policies to make the workplace more sustainable; or the focus may be to offer enhanced employee benefits or more innovative ways of doing things.

Compassion must remain at the centre of this context. Structural changes such as pay cuts are a commercial necessity and complaints must be dealt with professionally. However, by empathetically engaging with staff, all of whom are faced with a unique experience of pandemic-era working, employers can ensure a healthier and more harmonious workplace community.

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