Regardless of where they fall along the political spectrum, American workers are preoccupied, stressed and distracted by the near-constant stream of news and analysis being circulated and discussed. In the minds of many, social media was already a drain on productivity long before the election, but now it’s probably sucking up even more of your employees’ time and attention. Disagreements over politics can get in the way of healthy collaboration and change interpersonal dynamics to the detriment of the entire organization.
Today, employees are often friends outside of work and serve as a significant part of their coworkers’ support network. You can’t expect thinking, feeling humans to leave their concerns at home, but you can’t let it derail work that needs to get done either. How can you keep people focused and productive without stifling authentic conversations or being perceived as dismissive of issues your workforce cares about?
Company leaders can acknowledge the gravity of world events and still keep people focused on their work responsibilities so the business doesn’t lose momentum. Here are six strategies for striking that delicate balance.
Start with a strong culture.
When non-work chatter starts engulfing the workplace, it helps to be standing on a solid foundation. In a culture that values empathy, openness and trust, people can freely exchange ideas without descending into disrespect and hostility. Even if you don’t agree with a particular point of view someone is espousing, it’s easier to move past clashes if you start from a place of mutual respect.
Communicate from the top.
Your CEO doesn’t need to issue a statement every time a big news story gets tongues wagging around the office, but you shouldn’t ignore the elephant in the room either. Let employees know you understand their preoccupation, restate your company values and request that political talk be kept to a minimum for the sake of office productivity. You’re not taking a stand or trying to censor anyone; you’re just reminding people this is a professional setting.
Leverage available resources.
Lots of company benefits include wellness services such as an employee assistance program (EAP) so people can find someone to talk to in times of need. If an employee is in crisis or just needs a sympathetic ear, the EAP will connect them with experienced, qualified listeners. Additionally, make sure people know they can speak to a manager or other designated staff if they’re having trouble dealing with issues or conflicts with other employees.
Keep it contained.
If your team uses Slack, Hipchat or some other messaging service, be vigilant. Make sure public channels aren’t being used to broadcast inappropriate content or inflammatory statements, and have an administrator remove them right away. Remind everyone these communications tools are intended for work conversations, not debates.
Step in where necessary.
When political discussions get really out of control, you need to get involved -- not to take a side but simply to restore civility. If heated arguments are taking place instead of productive meetings or if specific individuals seem to be stoking the fires, take them aside for a talk. Be sure managers know when and how to take action.
Revisit your mission.
In turbulent times, it helps to have a powerful company mission that people can recommit to and feel good about. At Udemy, for example, our mission is to improve lives through learning; no matter what’s happening outside, we know why we’re here and what we stand for. That’s a strong rallying point for all of us, regardless of political leanings.
Whether they celebrate or decry the latest news developments, it’s tempting for people to drop what they’re doing to follow along. For management, the right response depends on your people and culture, but I’d advise everyone to be empathetic and offer support while firmly steering the focus back to business.