Flexible work arrangements have been on the rise, and it’s no surprise that more and more, employees are looking to work with employers who support work-life balance and flexibility. In fact, employees are more likely to join a company with flexible work options versus a reputable company with limited or no flexible options. (Check out more information on this here).

Interestingly enough, one of the barriers to implementing flexible work arrangements is the corporate culture. In particular, when organizations have a non-flexible work approach, it is that much more difficult for that environment to embrace flexible working options.

One characteristic that reduces the success of flexible work arrangements is sludge. “Sludge is the workplace chatter that reinforces the idea that people can’t be trusted with autonomy” (Ressler & Thompson, 2013). Take a look at some of these examples provided by Ressler and Thompson in their article about sludge in the workplace:

  • “Well, good morning. Nice of you to finally join us!”
  • “Wish could leave at 4:30 every day…must be nice!”
  • “Sure must be great to work from home every Friday.”
  • “Oh, she’s home with a sick kid…again. I need to get myself a kid.”

Ouch.

I’ve certainly heard my share of these comments but had no idea the impact it has to the toxicity of a work environment. I did, however, recognize that there was growing stress in work environments as individuals who were legitimately working from home on an approved flexible work arrangement would still feel nervous that fellow coworkers would question if these individuals were actually working or not. For example, when I managed a team, I recall employees giving me a detailed rundown of their day, when they’re taking their lunch breaks, or making sure I knew that they started work early that day to justify logging off early – and this was only a 30-minute difference to their normal working hours! While I appreciated being kept up to date, when I dug into what is prompting employees to give such detailed explanations of where they are, their response was that they didn’t want me or the rest of the team to think they weren’t working. Ironically, the flexible work option that was designed to help people feel less stress was actually increasing their stress levels.

If you hear this type of chatter in your workplace, there is a lot you can do to reduce it:

Create awareness.

If you are managing a team, take the time to let them know that you have heard comments around the office that are not supportive to the flexible work environment the company is trying to achieve. Give specific examples and educate them on the term of office sludge. This knowledge and awareness will create opportunities for reflection, and even encourage discussion around how to respond when they hear any office sludge going on.

Help employees realize that by engaging in this behaviour, they are limiting their opportunities for flexibility as well.

This is not surprising – if someone is talking behind an employee’s back, they are probably talking behind your back too. So if you find that your colleague is engaging in toxic chatter and you join in or stand by and do nothing, chances are you may be the target next time. Enabling this type of gossip and non-collaborative environment will only further deteriorate your own opportunities for flexibility as well because you will be just as stressed as others to take advantage of the flexible options offered by the organization.

Reinforce the reasons why the organization embraces flexible work options.

These are privileges the organization has offered, and so as a leader, express that you are proud that employees are embracing the practices and culture of the organization.  People should not be afraid to use the perks offered by the company, but instead, encouraging each other to use these perks leads to a more supportive and healthy organization overall.

It starts with the manager.

Most importantly, ensure YOU speak positively about the flexible work arrangements. If you are sludging about your peers using these options, you are then creating a toxic culture that your team is learning from.  It starts with the leader.  If you are not shutting down negative and toxic chatter, or encouraging and supporting the flexibility your company is offering, you will not raise the bar or see the benefits of the perks your organization is offering – plain and simple.

Toxicity runs deep in an organization’s culture and is hard to remove once it’s ingrained in people’s habits.  Instilling these habits amongst the leaders and employees of your organization is a good start to detoxing these bad habits.  For more information on how you can implement a plan for your organization, contact us for a complimentary 30-minute discussion to see how we can help you achieve a healthier, and psychologically safer, working environment.

 

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