It’s difficult to escape politics in America — the Trump administration dominates the network news cycle, social media feeds and nearly every corner of pop culture. And it’s starting to affect the workplace, according to a survey of 500 full-time U.S. employees by Wakefield Research in conjunction with BetterWorks, a company that offers performance management software.
The results found that 87 percent of employees “read political social media posts at work,” while 80 percent said they have discussed politics with professional contacts or colleagues. Meanwhile, nearly half said they had seen a political conversation turn into an argument at work.
“Business leaders must strike a balance between keeping workers focused and productive, while still giving them the space to process and engage in political news and conversations,” says Kris Duggan, CEO of BetterWorks.
The current administration shouldn’t serve as a constant office distraction, but managers will need to be sensitive to how politics affect their teams. Whether your team agrees or disagrees in their views, politics can quickly affect engagement, stress levels and interoffice relationships.
“Organizations should encourage employees to stay politically informed while fostering a respectful and trusting environment — especially during today’s never-ending political news cycle,” says Vip Sandhir, CEO of HighGround, an organization that offers employee engagement software.
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Reach of politics is unprecedented
There are plenty of reasons why this administration is unlike any before, but one thing we can all agree on is that social media has allowed us to watch it unfold in real-time, exposing workers to a constant chatter, says Duggan.
Instead of ignoring how politics might impact workers and productivity, businesses can instead find ways to encourage employees to give themselves a break from social media and the non-stop headlines. Sandhir says, “Since social media enables current events to unfold in real-time, I think it’s something workplaces need to embrace.” Businesses can find ways to embrace social media, while “mitigating converse effects” through regular employee check-ins and keeping an eye on goals and results, he says.
Beyond social media, international workers are concerned about the current administration. For instance, Duggan says some workers have spent their one-on-one meetings with managers expressing concern about traveling to international conferences. With Trump’s travel bans and focus on immigration, it’s a concern for teams if one or more members holds a green card.
Duggan also points out that many of the issues at the forefront of this administration hit “close to home” for workers. From healthcare to immigration to human rights, there’s something for everyone to worry about, and few people find themselves unaffected by the current administration’s ideas.
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Ultimately, it is unrealistic to expect employees to stop talking or reading about politics, or scouring through social media for the latest headlines. The challenge is to find ways to alleviate any negative effects that stem from politics in the workplace, and ensure employees aren’t getting burned out in the process. “In my opinion, managers should never limit employees’ time across social media networks, or be too controlling of their time and mind space. It’s better to encourage employees to stay focused on their goals and transparently hold them to those expectations than try to control what they do with every hour of every day,” says Duggan.
Sandhir agrees that it’s, “unrealistic to ask employees to stay off social media or limit political discussions.” But managers should maintain regular check-ins with workers to help keep them engaged and on-task. If productivity starts to become a concern, managers can “intervene and alleviate distractions,” he says.
How to handle escalating discussions
If an employee continually instigates inappropriate conversations or political discussions that cause tension, you need to address with sensitivity. If you’re worried about singling out one employee over others, you can treat it as part of a normal performance check-in or one-on-one meeting so that it “feels less like an attack and more like a solution,” says Sandhir.
Duggan also notes that, while managers need to mitigate tension in the workplace, “there is a strong chance [that employee] isn’t trying to be disruptive.” Since political arguments are born from opposing views, it could mean that one employee is simply aggravating another by expressing beliefs, but doesn’t realize they are causing tension with their behavior.
“Managers should approach handling these situations with caution. It might just take a gentle nudge to remind an employee that although their personal beliefs are important, voicing them is causing a divide across your workforce.”
And if a gentle nudge doesn’t work, managers will need to take a more direct approach as they see fit — both Sandhir and Duggan recommend incorporating the conversation into regular performance check-ins.
A thin line between work and personal life
Technology lets us bring our work home with us, but it also lets us bring our personal lives to work. You might find employees aren’t unplugging from the news-cycle on the weekend or taking the time to relax and unwind, which might start to affect productivity and focus at work, says Duggan.
“Encourage employees to take time away from their work and refresh on the weekends. Coach them to stay focused on the most important tasks at work so they can stay productive no matter what outside distractions might be stealing their attention,” he says.
Sandhir also suggests embracing work as an escape from the non-stop political commentary. Managers can reframe the workplace as the one place workers can get a break from the never-ending leaks, tweets and commentary.
“I’ve found that work has become a positive outlet of distraction for our team. Employees are using their work time to drown out the noise of election season and the first 100 days and channel it into great work.
Be understanding and set an example
Employers should understand that employees may feel stressed or anxious in the current political climate, and offset that by setting an example for productivity and focus. Duggan says managers can do this by not engaging in political discourse at work and attempting to deescalate any conversations that take a turn for the worse. But, for the most part, managers should avoid trying to control the situation more than they have to.
“When employees are stressed by big outside factors like politics, they don’t need their boss breathing down their neck, or trying to limit how many hours they spend on Facebook. Managers are the first line of defense against a productivity loss — they should be well-equipped to give their employees best practices and guidance when it comes to dealing with stressful situations and distractions in the workplace,” he says.
It’s always the right time to embrace diversity and our differences in the workplace, and now it is more important than ever. Whether your team is one-sided or divided on the issues, diversity is what makes a business innovative, profitable and successful.
“Divisive political environments should encourage employees to be tolerant of different points of view, which only enhances overall business productivity. The more we’re able to work together in trying times, the more productive we can be. If anything, this should encourage businesses to push diversity and inclusion of ideas, which inherently makes for a stronger, more resilient workforce,” he says.