Workplace communication
    in the COVID-19 era

    Survey highlights shift in how workers interact during the pandemic, draws sharp contrast by race in who experiences toxic communication


    Tuesday, Oct 27, 2020

    Key Takeaways

    • Workplace communication is far more toxic for people of color than for white people

    • One in five workers is criticized for family interruptions while working remotely

    • People have become worse writers as a result of communicating more over chat

    • Race, masks, parenting and politics are common themes in toxic messages

    Workplace communication has become less structured and formal in recent years, with email and phone calls giving way to platforms like Slack and Zoom. Especially in tech, employees are just as likely today to communicate via the comments feature of an application like InVision or Figma as they are to pick up the phone to call a colleague. 

    But what has changed about the nature of our communication during the pandemic, when many of us are working from home? Writer turned to more than 1,000 American professionals to shed light on how remote work has impacted the tone and tenor of our communication.

    Where we meet now

    To gain a better understanding of how the medium of communication has changed, we asked survey respondents to tell us how they interact with colleagues. A whopping 70% report communicating more over videoconference than before the pandemic.

    The accelerated move to workplace chat over the past year has been well documented, as 16 million Americans began working from home in March 2020. What has been less well understood is the impact that has had on the quality of communication.

    Respondents report an improvement in the quality of their videoconference communication (52%), but a decline in the quality of their in-person communication (36%). Twenty-seven percent report increasing the formality of their communication style over videoconference as that medium becomes the primary way they do business.

    More than one out of four (26%) respondents say the quality of their written communication has gotten worse since the pandemic began, even though they spend a lot more time messaging each other at work.

    "Control your children"

    Unfriendly, impolite or passive-aggressive communication is not new in the world of work, but a large number of people report toxic communication carrying over to new channels during the COVID-19 era. Thirty-eight percent of respondents report experiencing toxic communication in the workplace, including racist, discriminatory, bullying or sexually explicit messages or comments.

    Percent of respondents who report experiencing toxic communication, by medium

    The combination of an election, a pandemic and unprecedented remote work has provided plenty of fodder for toxic communication, with these new areas seen as fair game.

    In addition to the categories above, 19% of respondents report experiencing toxic communication specific to balancing work and home responsibilities during the pandemic. That number jumps nearly ten percentage points, to 29%, for people of color. Commenting on a colleague’s parenting seemed unimaginable pre-COVID, but has emerged as a top theme in messages respondents shared.

    We asked survey-takers to write in some of the most toxic messages they’ve received since March, and got hundreds of responses in roughly four categories: 

    1. Unkind messages related to getting work done, work overload, or balancing family and work (“You have to figure out your kids’ schedule and still manage to show up to work from home.”); 

    1. Dismissive, often political, and sometimes racist messages about COVID-19 (“COVID isn’t real, you liberal snowflake”); 

    1. Racist slurs or images (“Black lives don’t matter”); and 

    1. Sexually-explicit messages or images (“We can’t fire her; she’s too hot”)


    Toxic communication received by workplace chat, as reported by American workers:


    Toxic communication has a color

    We broke down the survey responses on toxic communication by race and gender and found the racial disparity troubling. While 32% of white respondents report being on the receiving end of these types of messages at work since the pandemic began, that number shoots up to 52% for people of color - a 20 percentage-point differential. 

    Percent of respondents who report experiencing toxic communication, by race

    This disparity holds true across nearly every type and media.

    In particular, people of color report experiencing racist messages at more than twice the rate than white people, especially over email (2.6x) and workplace chat (2.7x). 

    Percent of respondents who report experiencing racist communication, by race and medium

    People of color also report being bullied at higher rates than white people, especially over chat (1.8x) and videoconference (1.7x).

    Percent of respondents who report experiencing bullying communication, by race and medium

    Women report being bullied more than men over phone (1.6x) and email (1.2x), but less in person (0.8x). They report being bullied about the same as men over videoconference.

    Percent of respondents who report experiencing bullying communication, by gender and medium

    When comparing media, videoconferencing appears to be less toxic than in-person communication. For example, whereas 7% of respondents report experiencing sexually-explicit or suggestive communication in person, that number drops by more than two percentage points to  5% over videoconference.

    Percent of respondents who report experiencing sexually-explicit communication, by medium

    Professional milestones

    As workplaces navigate remote work and social distancing during the ups and downs of a pandemic, important work milestones we typically handle in person have changed, too.

    Almost as many (15%) respondents report being hired over the phone as in person (16%) since the pandemic began, and 21% report interviewing for a job over videoconference (vs. 18% in person). 

    Other interesting findings:

    • 6% report being fired over videoconference (vs. 8% in person)

    • 8% report being promoted over email

    • 5% percent of respondents report quitting over a messaging app such as Slack - that’s even more than by videoconference (4%)!

    Many COVID-era workplace trends are here to stay: the shift to remote work, reliance on videoconference and chat, and need to balance work with home responsibilities. Skilling up on best practices around healthy communication  must become a priority for companies who care about workplace culture.

    About the survey:

    We conducted this survey in October 2020. The findings are based on responses from 1,036 U.S.-based, full-time workplace professionals who earn an annual salary of $50K to $200K.