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Walk This Way: Dealing with Difficult Colleagues When Working Remotely


It’s a familiar scene in offices all across America: it is the last meeting of the day and everyone files into the conference room making small talk. Colleagues are chatting away about new restaurants, how the rain isn’t letting up, and they wish it was Friday. Then a collective look of consternation appears on their faces as the Office Pest enters the room. The Office Pest is sure to impede any progress and derail the conversation; the Office Pest will not let us forget all of the things that could go wrong. The meeting ends and it’s clear the Office Pest proved us right – they’ve lived up to their moniker once again. Luckily, the commute home for everyone dissolves any residual feelings of frustration and resentment.

But those dynamics played out “Before COVID” on everyone’s 2020 timeline, and the jump to virtual and remote work for many Americans has changed the professional landscape. Now the question becomes: how do employees deal with a similar scenario in a virtual environment when they don’t have the benefit putting some physical distance between themselves and the problem?

While interpersonal challenges and difficult personalities at work have always been part of the professional picture, the changing dynamics of how we work, and our reactions have added additional complexity. Jody Foster, MD, MBA, chair of Psychiatry at Pennsylvania Hospital and assistant dean for Professionalism at the Perelman School of Medicine, recently offered insights during a session for Penn Medicine leaders that can provide lessons for people in a wide range of work scenarios including practical tips on self-care, how to recognize red flags and react to incidents of unprofessional behavior in a virtual work setting.

“An important thing to note is that what we’re generally seeing across the board is that whatever people are usually like, they’re more like it now. It’s almost like the volume on our personalities is turned way up,” Foster said. “If I’m a ‘Debbie Downer,’ it’s going to be very hard for me to capture the silver lining on some of this stuff.”

Foster also points out that for these negative types, dwelling on the downside of a bad situation is a “lifetime way of handling stress,” but they can still benefit from accessing tools and resources for help now that many people are experiencing amplified stress. For Penn Medicine employees, resources like PennCOBALT are making mental health support a viable avenue for help through these unprecedented times.

For people on the receiving end of a colleague’s negative attitude, recognizing that the behavior is also being driven by the increase in stress levels can help us to shift our perspective and not take the behavior as a personal attack.

She also recommends parsing the interaction (was it truly difficult or was it an overreaction on your part), determining exactly what bothered you about the interaction, trying to empathize with the person, and giving feedback in a concise and direct manner. “It’s always better to talk to, not about, the person who is causing you difficulty,” she noted in her presentation.

It really is much harder to disconnect from disturbing events at work when working from home, Foster says, such as a meeting with an “Office Pest” who derails a team’s progress. Without the natural boundaries of space and time to help define when you are “off duty,” people need to set these boundaries for themselves, which can be tremendously challenging.

To set those physical boundaries, Foster suggests defining the workspace in your home and maintaining it just for work, and establishing personal routines and sticking to them — including getting out of your bed clothes, establishing regular mealtimes, and exercising before or after work.

“Setting these boundaries is important whether you need to disconnect from difficult interactions, regardless of your situation,” Foster says.

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Views expressed are those of the author or other attributed individual and do not necessarily represent the official opinion of the related Department(s), University of Pennsylvania Health System (Penn Medicine), or the University of Pennsylvania, unless explicitly stated with the authority to do so.

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