In a year of nonstop news and a bitterly contested presidential election, it can seem like politics, and political opinions, always bubble beneath the surface. Commercial real estate executives who spoke to Bisnow about the state of — or more commonly, lack of — political discourse at work, said that it’s best for all involved to keep any views under the surface and outside of the workplace.
“When it enters the boardroom or the office, it’s counterproductive,” digital commercial real estate market CrowdStreet co-founder Darren Powderly said. “Influencing other team members with your political views just isn’t good in that venue or forum. We don’t have a lot of chatter around the virtual water cooler around these issues, Slack or otherwise.”
Dan Spiegel, a managing director at Coldwell Banker Commercial in Chicago, said that even with the current routine of remote work and video meetings, working together is like “sharing a floor in an apartment building or condo,” and it’s just not worth unnecessarily alienating anybody.
“When you have to work together, you have to think about the community,” he said.
The 2020 election has been a high stakes contest for the country and the CRE industry, with many leaders expressing strong feelings about the opposing presidential candidates. President Donald Trump represented a deregulatory approach and had real-world real estate experience, while others backed former Vice President Joe Biden, whose more aggressive stance on containing the coronavirus pandemic suggested he may be the better bet to quickly get people back to work at the office, or back shopping in malls.
Clearly, many top CRE figures had strong emotions about the election. According to figures from Real Clear Politics, members of the real estate industry gave $32M to Biden and $28M to Trump, including leading figures and CEOs such as Stephen Roth of Vornado Real Estate Trust and Steven Schwarzmen at Blackstone Group. Many have pointed to Trump’s push to rewrite the tax code, often in ways that favor developers, and Biden’s push to eliminate the 1031 Exchange Program, a developer-friendly tax loophole, to fund social programs as not just typical of their parties, but as evidence of why the CRE industry may lean politically toward Trump’s re-election.
But talking about these issues, amid wider public political disagreements and tensions over the election, can be challenging. Gartner, a research firm, polled 500 Americans back in February — the same month as the Iowa caucus — and found that 78% talk politics at work, and 47% said the election impacted their concentration and focus and ability to get work done. It has only become harder to stay focused in the ensuing months, and even the actual vote, after such a long campaign, hasn’t brought relief, due to drawn-out claims of election malfeasance and the consequential Georgia Senate runoff.
Powderly sees it as a clear sign that company culture needs to avoid unnecessary political discussions but needs to think about employee wellness during challenging times.
“Now more so than ever, companies need to focus on the wellness of their employees, physically, mentally and emotionally,” he said. “Events like election night, and the week after, can be a tipping point.”
Companies can do their part to keep distracting and divisive political conversation to a minimum, but need to thread the needle between moderation and respecting employee rights. Slate advice columnist Alison Green said anybody at work who begins to get too politically agitated during a conversation needs to pay attention to cues from the listener: Is a speaker abusing a captive audience, taking advantage of power dynamics to rant to a subordinate, or not realizing a colleague may be affected by an issue or policy in a way others won’t?
Spiegel and Powderly both said they haven’t seen, heard or read of anybody at work being inappropriately political at work. The only time such issues come up is when it’s a policy position or proposal that directly impacts the industry, such as tax policy, regulations, recent ballot measures around rent control or the 1031 exchange.
“Honestly, I know it’s on people’s minds, and maybe this is part of the benefit from working at home, but I can’t say I’ve seen anything inappropriate, on an email, conference call or in the background of a video call,” Spiegel said.
Companies can issue blanket statements requesting that workers be civil and collegial and avoid making a co-worker bristle at the mention of politics in the office. Both Spiegel and Powderly said their companies have more of an unspoken cultural norm and didn’t receive any additional communications around avoiding difficult topics.
But firm leaders or HR teams need to be careful not to say anything that could be construed as a ban on political speech. While workers technically don’t have freedom of speech at work — the First Amendment doesn’t apply to private actors like private employers — many states have passed laws that allow workers to engage in political activity, and workers have a right to discuss anything related to organizing. A balance needs to be struck between stifling and suggestive.
While there’s plenty of potential awkwardness in mixing politics and work, especially for employees with opposite views from an employer who made a significant and very public political donation, much of the added stress around politics this year comes from a time of heightened anxiety.
“It’s important to acknowledge things,” Powderly said. “Last week in particular, with the dragging on of results and uncertainty in the transfer of power, there will be some level of distraction and loss of productivity. Encouraging people by saying, ‘I know you have a lot on your minds, it will be impacting people differently, do your best to compartmentalize,’ can be important.”
Spiegel said Coldwell, which is part of Realology, has encouraged employees to attend sessions on relaxation, and it has made efforts to address contemporary issues, such as working from home or balancing work and child care, that have been significant stressors.
It’s important to help employees feel supported and focused, Powderly said. And at the end of the day, it’s crucial not to get too obsessed.
“Our business performed well under Obama, hit growth mode under Trump, and will continue to grow under Biden,” he said. “We’re not particularly concerned with who the president is.”