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Keeping it Toxic Under COVID 

Maintaining a hostile workplace ... remotely

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For many of us, the last few months have meant a sometimes rocky transition to working from home, either with the distractions of family or in grim isolation, all under the psychic strain of a global pandemic. Maintaining communication, productivity and a sense of teamwork among remote staff is an even greater challenge for management and bosses. But just because your employees are scattered and your old routines are history doesn't mean you can't maintain the same toxic work environment you've fostered for years.

First, you need to take a long, hard look at your office culture and ask what makes it the stuff of nightmares. Is it your tantrums or your complete lack of boundaries? Is it your "ironic" racism or throwback sexism? Whatever it is, identify your signature style and prepare to both lean in and branch out. These are unprecedented times and you've got a 24-hour news cycle of terror to compete with for your staff's mental real estate. Dig deep, find another gear.

We all miss the days of eating someone's yogurt and pointing the finger at Paul. And truly there's nothing like those face-to-face meetings that absolutely could have been an email for creating awkward silences — maybe with a tirade or a deeply inappropriate observation about someone's body — that make attendees feel like time has stopped. But Zoom meetings are not without advantages.

For one thing, the gallery view is basically a digital version of the 18th century panopticon prison in which you can see all the inmates in their little cells. Who are you glaring at? Nobody knows! Gone are those secret sympathetic glances that once gave staffers a sense of solidarity, and any reprieve from your freakishly unblinking stare. But try tossing out, "Especially you," just before logging off, or pretending to freeze and then unfreeze, shouting, "Do not make me repeat myself!"

Being able to see everyone's home office also gives you a vital window into the soft underbelly of their personal lives. Their décor alone should give you plenty of new targets for demeaning them but if a child should wander into view, well, that's a jackpot of parental anxiety. Say hello, ask if the little tyke is in the normal weight range and say something terrifying about how blowing kisses can kill us now. Once it scurries off wailing, you can debate whether Mom or Dad should really get full pay while simultaneously caring for a child.

The only real benefit of working from home is not dressing for the office. At least it was before you introduced a dress code. Get creative: black tie, theme weeks, elbow gloves. Then show up in a T-shirt with a racist mascot.

If you regularly dumped personal tasks on your staff, like cleaning golf clubs or handling text breakups, it's time to think outside the box. Consider outsourcing your online shopping with impossible parameters that are mostly in your head. Do they make 4,000 thread-count sheets in the color "bird?" Maybe not but there's only one way to waste Sharon's entire damn weekend finding out.

Time is meaningless during a pandemic anyway. Feel free to text "URGENT" in the wee hours, followed by a string of random emojis. Make sure you get the knife, the penguin and the winky face in there.

Right now job security is at an all time low and almost everyone fears for their position. But if your staff's anxiety stems from a looming economic collapse and not your own unpredictable whims, maybe you should ask yourself if you even really want this. Throw out the idea of an all-robot workforce and quickly shelve it for later. Casually mention relocating to a country with more lax labor laws. Try making a game out of it to keep yourself motivated. Look at the grid of faces in your next meeting — can you get four people in a row to collapse in quiet, gasping tears? Bingo!

It's important to step away from the screens now and then, too. Be fully present with you family and terrorize them for a little while. Tell your kid there'll be a 30-percent reduction in stuffed animals in the morning and it's time for them to make some tough choices. No kids? Get involved in your community — it's likely been a while since you've threatened a neighbor with litigation or installed an offensive lawn ornament.

Take time for self care, like a relaxing walk or a drive. Perhaps randomly show up on an employee's doorstep with no mask. These are stressful times but if you focus on the systematic traumatization of subordinates, you can briefly suppress the horror show of your own mind, and bask in their collective misery and impotent rage. Remember, we're all in this together. Except you, Paul. But we can talk about that next week.

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor at the Journal and prefers she/her. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.

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About The Author

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor of the North Coast Journal. She won the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2020 Best Food Writing Award and the 2019 California News Publisher's Association award for Best Writing.

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