Friday night drinks used to be the closest coworkers got to muddying the work-life balance, but thanks to COVID, working from home has now granted colleagues unlimited access to each other. For some, this means little more than streams of notifications and having to mute WhatsApp. Others have been left to navigate inappropriate messages, sexual advances and Zoom calls that unwittingly allow colleagues a peek of their bedrooms.
When IT worker Eva* received an email telling her she’d have to work from home for the foreseeable future, she breathed a sigh of relief. Not only had an already gruelling commute caused a spike in her anxiety, the atmosphere at work had become increasingly tense since she reported an ex-colleague for sexual harassment. Working in a predominantly male environment had become isolating, with many refusing to work with her.
As she worked from the comfort of her sofa, the weight of being the source of office gossip eased. But it was quickly replaced with a more sinister discomfort when one of her directors started requesting one-to-one video calls.
“It’s very uncomfortable,” she says. “He asks about my personal life and comments on my appearance, and then brushes it off as just caring about my wellbeing.”
Although Eva knows the individual meetings with her director are unnecessary and inappropriate, their online setting makes the power dynamic painfully obvious. There’s no way for Eva to decline the calls without jeopardising her precarious position at work, and being confined to her flat makes it impossible to avoid his calls, she told VICE.
The only silver lining is the infrequency of the meetings, but even that is counteracted by the constant flirting and unsolicited pictures that Eva receives from another senior staff member, whom she has to work closely with on a daily basis. “He keeps saying I could be in his support bubble and asking to come over as he lives very close by.”
Eva doesn’t think he’ll actually turn up at her flat, but the virtual threat makes her feel like he’s already at her door. The mindless scrolling that once helped her unwind has been hijacked, and every phone notification is now a source of anxiety. Thanks to her new WFH reality, her harassers can invade her personal space and leave her stomach in knots from a distance, leaving Eva feeling powerless in her own home.
Online abuse disproportionately affects women, and because online usage has doubled since the start of lockdown in the UK, women’s groups are concerned about what this means for victims’ mental wellbeing and safety.
Lauren Pemberton-Nelson, senior communications coordinator at Glitch, a charity working towards ending online abuse, said the sense of anonymity and physical distance created by online spaces can be a gateway for harassment.
"With technology and the use of technological means, people may communicate with colleagues digitally in ways that they wouldn't before,” she explains.
Sophia* experienced this firsthand when an older colleague she’d met only a handful of times punctured an entirely professional conversation with a joke about sexting. “He was able to make me feel that smallness you feel when somebody speaks to you in that way,” she says. “I didn't even reply.”
In person, Sophia feels confident that she’d be able to shut the conversation down and translate her discomfort verbally. But drafting a message is a whole different ball game. With a flashing cursor willing a response to be tapped out, there’s more room for the pressure to pile on. “With the time to consider and really give thought to what I would want to say,” Sophia says, “I still couldn't bring myself to do it.”
Struggling to deal with the situation – and believing she’d be supported – Sophia decided to confide in her manager. She was shocked when her experience was brushed off with comments about the perpetrator being a good person. “She’ll wear a feminist T-shirt but she won’t escalate reports of sexual harassment.”
Employers failing to take cases of workplace misconduct seriously isn’t uncommon, but policing harassment in online spaces can be even more daunting than doing it in person. Despite the fact that they’re the ones being victimised, it can also exacerbate the sense of responsibility and guilt that women feel.
Too often, victims of online abuse internalise the idea that it’s a misunderstanding and are expected to solve the harassment themselves, and the absence of physical threat means it’s not met with the seriousness it deserves. But it’s almost impossible to block or mute someone you’re supposed to be remotely working with, and being physically confronted with your harasser is becoming an imminent possibility as more offices reopen.
Typically, only one in five women report workplace sexual harassment, fearing that they would lose their job or their claim wouldn’t be taken seriously. Even taking this into account, Vault Platform, an app used to document workplace misconduct, says it’s received an increasing number of reports as the threat of redundancy has increased amid COVID-19.
Deeba Syed, a senior legal officer at Rights of Women, an organisation offering a free legal advice line, said that those with ongoing cases are also vulnerable. “Women are telling us that employers are using the pandemic as an excuse to make those who have reported sexual harassment redundant, cut their wages or dismiss them altogether.”
With only three months to bring harassment claims to Employment Tribunals, a backlog of cases caused by COVID-19 means that women could be timed out of justice.
Tia*, who was sexually harassed by her CEO just six months into her job after graduating, is one of the many women experiencing delays in her case. Although her claim hasn’t reached the tribunal stage yet, little progress has been made since she reported the incident just days before staff were asked to work from home.
“I've spoken to two of the senior team about it, but very little has happened so far. COVID has definitely made it harder to handle.”
Tia doesn’t mind. The slow progress allows her to forget about it, especially with limited contact with her harasser. But she’s conscious that the decision to wait until it’s possible to speak to the perpetrator in person could be a stalling tactic.
Currently in the UK on a visa directly linked to her employment at the company, she’s worried about her future and returning to the office. Given the power her harasser holds, reporting him could eventually cost her her job, which would completely derail the life she’s built for herself in London.
For many, when and if they’ll return to work is uncertain. But for women being sexually harassed, the issues COVID-19 presents are magnified. Abuse of power occurs at every level – including those often in senior positions exploiting remote workspaces, management dismissing claims, and the aftermath that disproportionately harms victims. For many, it’s costing them their livelihoods and mental wellbeing at a time when both are at their most fragile.
*Name has been changed to protect identity