A Stanford professor says, at the rate things are going, workplaces will only get more toxic in the future

The future is bleak.

No office is perfect.

Maybe you some of your coworkers are jerks. Perhaps your building has such intense AC that it feels like you’re hunkered down in an eternal winter.

Unfortunately, some rising trends seem sure to make the office a less pleasant place to be in the future.

At least, that’s the view of Robert Sutton, a professor of management at Stanford University and author of “The No Asshole Rule” and “The Asshole Survival Guide.”

Here are a few things that Sutton said will ensure more strife, rudeness, and discontent in the workplace going forward:

1. We make less eye contact nowadays — and therefore have less empathy

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It’s not uncommon for the modern worker to rely on phone and email to communicate with employers, colleagues, and clients. In some cases, you might even be tempted to Slack or IM the colleagues sitting right next to you rather than speak to them about something directly.

Using technology to communicate is convenient and it saves time, for sure. But there’s also a dark side to our increasingly impersonal communication habits.

“We use so many different forms of communication where we don’t have eye contact with people,” Sutton said. “Once you don’t have eye contact with people, even if you know them, all sorts of things happen that can just blow up because we don’t have as much empathy.”

Writing in The Scientist, clinical psychologist Dr. Robert A. Lavine said that studies indicate eye contact allows people to experience “enhanced neural synchronization” and plays a major role in allowing us to empathize with one another.

Sutton described speaking to a student who served as an officer in Afghanistan. The student told Sutton that indirect communication habits had strained relationships between the soldiers he served with.

“He said, ‘We’d go into our foxholes and we’d all be getting along fine and then we’d get on the internet and start sending nastier and nastier notes,'” Sutton said. “‘We’d wake up in the morning and all hate each other.’ It’s almost a perfect illustration of what happens when you go from having eye contact to not having it.”

Ultimately, Sutton’s student said only one solution fixed the problem.

“He said his commanding officer said, ‘No more internet at night unless it’s an emergency,'” Sutton said. “And then things got better.”

2. Income inequality is on the rise, leading to jealousy and scorn

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It’s no secrecy that income inequality is soaring around the globe.

And that trend could come back to haunt workers in the future.

“When I think of the perfect analogy for what we’re suffering as a society, it’s getting on an airplane,” Sutton said.

He said that many airlines have set up a sort of “caste system” for members, cramming passengers in together and dividing them into numerous tiers of travel classes.

“Those sort of situations where there’s obvious, vivid inequality, it causes all sort of nasty behavior,” Sutton said.

Social psychologist and TED speaker Paul Piff has said that increased wealth can decrease your empathy. Meanwhile, the World Economic Forum reported that “more unequal societies tend to have lower levels of life satisfaction and higher rates of depression.”

Sutton said that, with income inequality on the rise, this may eventually spill into the workplace.

If your company has a clear and increasingly insurmountable gap between the haves and the have nots, that could seriously erode morale over time.

3. We work in open offices, which exacerbate existing problems


Sutton himself works in an open office. It’s safe to say he’s not a huge fan of the layout.

“I have a nearly open office at Stanford so that’s why I end up working at home a lot,” he said. “At Stanford, it’s actually great to go into the office because no one’s there because we have open offices.”

These kinds of offices are increasingly popular due to the fact that they cut costs, Forbes reported.

However, Sutton said that organizations that use an open layout must establish norms and rules to go along with them. Otherwise, he said they risk fostering a culture that has “less communication, less productivity, and fewer positive relationships.”

The lack of privacy can also render offices hotbeds of noise, distraction, and stress.

“It gets rid of the privacy, it creates more crowding,” Sutton said. “If you’re within 25 feet of a toxic person, the odds that you’re going to get fired or become a jerk yourself go up substantially. This is what open offices have brought us.”