Building a Respectful Online Work Environment

As classes and services transition to online spaces in response to COVID-19, students, staff and faculty are finding themselves having to navigate and manage their work and home lives in new and different ways. 

Amidst the uncertainty of an ever-changing social, political, and economic landscape, students, staff and faculty are experiencing deep and varied personal impacts as they try to fulfil their responsibilities at home and at work.

The speed, scale and context for our current transition online is unique and unparalleled.  UBC has prepared the following resource to help support staff and faculty as they navigate the nuances of their online social interactions.

What are the Standards of Online Conduct? 

The standards that are expected when you are physically present on-campus are the same online.  As the virtual office and classroom are extensions of the workplace, the student code of conduct, Respectful Environment Statement, UBC’s Discrimination Policy and Sexual misconduct still apply.

As a leader, how can I set expectations for respectful online practices and exchanges, with students and with colleagues?

In addition to UBC’s existing netiquette for communicating online, here are some additional tips to support respectful engagement online:

1. Create or co-create ground rules.

Establish a powerful social contract for how your team wants to work together. Having honest, explicit and iterative conversations will help create a plan that works for and is upheld by your team.   Topics to begin this discussion could include:

    • which communications platforms are most suitable for which situations;
    • how often and for how long does the team want to meet and how will these meetings be structured;
    • how will we maintain the same or higher standards of confidentiality and privacy as we expect in face-to-face meetings;
    • how can we encourage clear communication and accommodate for any limitations created by technology (e.g. distortion, echo, connectivity challenges, limited body language)
    • how will we ensure all voices are heard in various online spaces
    • how, where, and when will we address disagreement within the group
    • how and when will we evaluate whether our individual and collective needs are being met?

2. Lead by example. 

As we get more comfortable working from home, so too do we risk slipping into less-than-professional behaviours. While technology can serve to equalize power dynamics, the loss of contextual professional cues can also create a sense of intimacy where it’s easier to assume that everyone holds and exercises the same world views, values, perspectives, and needs as you do.  In fact, online spaces are also places where social inequities may, in fact, be exacerbated.  Demonstrating professionalism can go a long way – examples can include giving the meeting your full attention; showing a clean, neutral, or uncluttered background; and sticking to an agenda.

3. Be mindful of stressors and personal boundaries. 

Many tasks that were once routine are require significantly more energy – expect that people will be less focused and less productive than usual!  These stressors are also disproportionately impacting society and UBC’s most vulnerable communities, including those who are food/housing/income insecure; who carry significant responsibilities towards caring for others; and members of historically, persistently, and structurally marginalized communities. Practicing kindness, generosity, flexibility, and acceptance of delays, disruptions, and strong emotions will help relieve yourself and other of further stress and anxiety.

4. Respect privacy.

As we shift to working and studying from home, you and others may learn more intimate information about each other than would normally have been shared in a workplace setting.  Please remember that everyone has a right to privacy and consider what information is appropriate to share and what should be kept to yourself.   When in doubt, err on the side of privacy or check with the person involved.

As a manager or instructor, how can I host respectful video conferences and meetings?

Working from home raises different considerations around the boundaries of privacy and power.  Typically, someone could choose the degree to which they would invite their colleagues into their domestic lives: the blurring of boundaries between public and private spaces will inevitably inspire different levels of discomfort within the community thus providing more opportunity for conflict to arise. 

The responsibility to ensure everyone can positively contribute and meet their work obligations remains the primary responsibility of the team’s leader or, in cases of distributed leadership, should fall on the meeting’s host.  This responsibility includes making the decision to cancel, postpone, or virtually host any gathering rather than serving the purpose through other channels.  This decision relies on answering:

  • What is the purpose of this meeting?  Is there a more appropriate way to meet this need?
  • Who needs to be present? 
  • What are the individual needs of these participants? 
  • How can I purposefully set expectations, address power inequities, and manage the conversation so that everyone can meaningfully contribute to meeting our individual and collective needs? 

I feel like I’ve been disrespected by a colleague – what can I do?

The first – and often most difficult – step is to not respond with more bad behaviour!  While their behaviour had a negative impact on you, this was unlikely the person’s intention; everyone has different stressors in their life right now which can be influencing their mindset and behaviours.  Where possible, be kind, be patient, be gentle and generous with yourself and with each other. Consider speaking to the person directly about their behaviour and how it impacted you – this provides an opportunity for each of you to share your perspectives, learn information you might not have previously known, clear up any misunderstanding, and find different ways to engage together moving forward.  While potentially uncomfortable, this informal approach can help build your relationship and offers a rare opportunity to learn from each other’s feedback. 

How can I support someone who feels disrespected by someone else? 

Listening to the person’s story is an infinitely helpful first step and may be enough. Helping them to achieve further clarity about what happened, how they were impacted, and what other perspectives may be brought to their situation can further support their decision-making about what to do next.  If the person requires additional support, feel free to refer them to the resources mentioned above. 

I need additional help! What campus resources are available to me? 

The following supports are also available to you:

Your direct supervisor, your union representative, or human resources practitioner. 

Your supervisor may be able to provide support and insight as you seek to find productive ways to address your situation. 

The human rights advising team at the UBC Equity & Inclusion Office. 

The human rights advisor provides confidential, informal and impartial consultation if you have questions or concerns related to human-rights discrimination. They can help you frame, understand and make decisions about other informal resolutions or additional steps and resources to resolve your concerns.

A trusted colleague. 

Sometimes soliciting the perspective of a colleague who knows you and the other person well, can provide helpful insight into your blindspots.  Be sure to frame this conversation as a request for help into what you can do to remedy the situation, rather than an opportunity for potential gossip. 

You can also explore additional faculty and staff resources regarding mental health, finances or other issues, there are many available for extra support.