“Our five-point plan will pull the plug on hybrid bullying”

Jo North explains how her organisation is working to eradicate workplace bullying, even with staff working both in the office and remotely

Lockdowns have transformed the workplace for the better – and forever. As technologies liberate millions from the office, CIPD research suggests that hybrid environments see businesses enjoy greater productivity, while people work where they feel safer and happier. It’s a win-win, but an old foe threatens to cut the connection: bullying. Bullying has changed with the times too, migrating from in-person to online in both social and business settings. Businesses will want to act quickly if they are to stop it infecting company networks.  

As a business that’s committed to inclusive working and community support, giffgaff has developed its own five-point plan – a blueprint to help pull the plug on hybrid bullying. 

Understand the issue 

The first step is to understand what bullying actually is. The Anti Bullying Alliance defines bullying as, “…the repetitive, intentional hurting of one person or group by another person or group, where the relationship involves an imbalance of power…”

The NHS further classifies bullying behaviours as those that: exclude and ignore people and their contribution; overload people with work; spread malicious rumours; unfair treatment; pick on or regularly undermine someone; and/or deny someone's training or promotion opportunities.” 

There’s a lot to think about here, and frank conversations with your people are likely to bring more to the surface. It’s worth the effort, because understanding bullying in all its forms is essential if we are to deny it airtime. 

Lead from the front

Exploring bullying might reveal surprising and unwelcome realities in our own organisations. The key is not to shy away from what we find but to acknowledge it, and this must come from the top. Senior leadership, ownership and action is critical.  

At giffgaff, we take every opportunity to show that hybrid working is both welcomed and valuable. This doesn’t need to be complicated – as simple as the top team not just championing hybrid working but actually doing it. A CEO who regularly works from home will do a lot to normalise the concept.  

We’ve also avoided top-down limits on hybrid working, such as an arbitrary 3-2 day split. We believe this simply highlights a sense of difference that can be exploited by those who want to alienate minorities. Our leadership is very clear: work where you are most effective.  

As hybrid working matures, we need to demonstrate that our businesses value what people do, not where they do it. 

Create inclusive cultures 

It’s important to understand that new working environments will demand new working cultures. Inclusivity will become ever-more important. 

Technologies are the great enabler: designed with hybrid in mind, they support features that blur the lines between home and HQ working. A simple example could be inclusive, all-team meetings, where hi-res screens and effective chat capabilities integrate office and hybrid colleagues so we all feel present. Seeing another person’s face, hearing their voice and understanding their day-to-day experiences can instil a very real sense of community.  

We can include our people in social events too. We don’t need to sit next to someone to be in a book club, a quiz team or even a sea shanty choir. If there’s free pizza in the office, send out pizza kits to those at home. If it’s somebody’s birthday, post a personalised gift. It means we have to take the time to understand our people better – but that’s good business, right? 

If we align our company cultures with hybrid environments, remote working doesn’t need to be an isolating experience. 

Step up so staff can speak out 

Bullying cultures try to marginalise those who can’t, or feel unable to, speak up. Unchecked, physical separation can create environments where bullying behaviours hide from wider scrutiny. People need to be empowered and encouraged to speak out. This can include a wide range of channels – but if we really want to give a voice to those who may feel voiceless, we need to be proactive.  

One solution we’ve trialled is a reverse mentoring programme. People of all backgrounds are paired with senior people so we can share our experiences. As it’s broadened understanding, the programme has generated some seriously creative business ideas and opened up proactive and powerful communication pathways. The more we listen to and understand the working realities of others, the less space we give bullying to breathe. 

Be a better business 

Absence means we must understand our people’s needs in greater breadth and depth than ever before. It’s priceless insight that helps us to tackle bullying, develop powerful diversity and inclusion strategies, eradicate racism, empower women in the workplace, engage the marginalised and deliver ever-more effective mental health support. 

Hybrid working encourages us to be better businesses. If we’re smart and take the opportunity, we can pull the plug on bullying and much more besides. 

Jo North is head of people at giffgaff