Politics and religion: How the new normal neutralized former work taboos

Sure 9-to-5 is dead, but welcome to the workplace upside down, where what was considered inappropriate only a year ago is a new cultural norm.

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Image: iStock/siphotography

The United States spent the last four years astonished and eventually growing accustomed to the unprecedented barrage of controversial conversation that swept over the country daily. While unexpected, it shouldn't be a surprise that the aftershocks of the national breakdown of civility, decorum and convention has resulted in previously taboo subjects in the workplace "suddenly becom[ing] OK," according to a February 2021 survey by Vyond, an animation software company. 

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The COVID-19 vaccine has made the future slightly less uncertain than it's been in the past year. The new normal will include a greater acceptance of remote work, whether full, partial or hybrid. But the survey most significantly revealed: "There is a whole new set of cultural norms that have developed in the past year; what was considered inappropriate at work a year ago has changed almost completely."

Biggest taboos lifted: Politics and religion

Whether because it was inescapable or therapeutic, the once-taboo topics of politics and religion "have become OK at work" now. The number of employees who considered political discourse a workplace violation decreased by 23% in 12 years (from 43% in February 2020 to 20% in February 2021), with religion decreasing by 17% (from 43% in February 2020 to 26% in February 2021). 

Vyond explained in the report, "As the pandemic has forced many workers to be physically distant from colleagues but closer with smaller circles of family and friends, conversation topics once considered only permissible among close connections are now more broadly acceptable. Further, employees are now expecting their organizations to take a stance on social issues and want to feel the freedom to express their own beliefs openly at work."

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"Talking about politics in the workplace is not seen as off-limits as it used to be--an element of that is because it's omnipresent and a topic that's harder to avoid these days," said Stacy Adams, Vyond's head of marketing.

"But I also think it signals an overall breakdown of the walls we used to put up to divide personal and workplace matters, as well as a desire from younger employees to be free to bring their full selves to work and openly express their beliefs," Adams said. "Basically, the pandemic-driven workplace has fostered a desire to connect with colleagues at a more personal level." 

Slacker no more: Social media monitoring

Checking personal social media is no longer frowned upon as slacking. Last year, 46% of respondents considered using personal social media a work violation, now only 23% consider it as such. Working from home required employees to self-manage. Flex work complemented their home life. Without the stress of colleagues "to be mindful of," employees feel more freedom to conduct business in a way that works for them.

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Love is in the (probably filtered) air

In-office romance is problematic and possibly a violation. For starters when it goes bad it can be ugly for both parties involved, as well as those around them, and likely will affect how the former partners work together in a team and their respective productivity. In February 2020, 52% of respondents felt a romantic relationship with someone at work was a violation. In February 2021, only 20% considered it to be one. The report said, "Remote work's tendency to break down the barrier between work and personal lives is likely impacting this shift."

We're experiencing technical difficulties 

At the start of the pandemic, one of the biggest issues with the transition were technical difficulties ranging from Wi-Fi, storage and cybersecurity. Now, the report said, "employees have found their groove with snags." Work-life balance and employees' ability to adapt to the changes were revealed to be different, and based on work status, age and gender. This is a signal, the report found, that employers need to find a way to make office communications "more personal and engaging as the one-size-fits-all approach to corporate communications risks alienating some groups of employees."

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The effect of the blurring between work and home 

Non-remote workers report they have a healthier work/life balance compared with remote workers (90% vs. 83%)--this figure went up 12% from July 2020; it's a preferred and better balance for them to keep a physical separation from work and home. 

But remote work boasts benefits for employees, such as saving money and time from not having a commute (56%), improved overall comfort while working (50%), and increased time at home (49%).

Boomers (30%) struggle to find balance, while millennials (47%), Gen X (38%) and Gen Z (also 38%) cite an improvement in their work-life balance in the last year. The survey noted that "younger generations have a leg up on technological skills and using virtual tools to communicate, they've adapted better to work during the pandemic."

Gender realties

Men said they have a healthier work-life balance compared with women respondents, and they also claimed to be eating healthier at home than women. Women are more negative about company communications than men, who are more likely to say their company leadership is doing well. This extends to how company leaders handle mental health--60% of men feel their company is committed to employees' mental health needs, but only 52% of women agree.

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Communication matters

Remote work invariably relies heavily on tech communication. Millennials, in particular (50%), are frustrated by colleagues who are confused on which channel to use (i.e. IM, email, Slack, Facebook Messenger, etc). More than half of all employees are wary of email because of too many miscommunications and unintentional offenses, but they acknowledge that email is the most used in company correspondence. 

Boomers appreciate a good "brainstorming session," and find it stifling to spark conversation through text-based messages, the method used most often by the newer generations. The report suggested that company leaders take the wheel and provide guidance on the preferred method for sparking ideas to help bridge the gap.

Advice to company leaders: Pivot communications

Most (56%) of employees prefer to watch a company announcement or communication on their own time, rather than attending a large live group session. Employers should "lean on video for corporate announcements and communications" instead of emails and blog posts. CEO video messages are even more preferred (57%) than text messages. Remote workers prefer video messages more than non-remote workers. Enliven presentations with animations or introductions to new employees, Vyond said. Use video for onboarding, too. 

"What will be interesting to see moving forward is whether corporate leaders and their internal communication teams take notice of this trend and truly change the way they communicate with staff to bring in and encourage more of that personal element," Adams said. "And if employees, once returned to day-to-day, in-person work, continue to want to communicate in this way."

Methodology: Vyond queried 1,000 full-time employees at large (500+) companies.

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By N.F. Mendoza

N.F. Mendoza is based in Los Angeles. She has a BA in Broadcast Journalism and Cinema Critical Studies and a Master's of Professional Writing, both from USC. Nadine has more than 20 years experience as a journalist covering film, TV, entertainment, b...