Does remote work remove workplace politics?

Last updated on 
October 26, 2020

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There are many reasons why remote work is preferred by so many people. No crushing commute. No distracting coworkers. No office politics. But is that last one really true? Now that a large portion of the global workforce is working from home, we may find that a new breed of workplace politics comes to light: virtual politics. Going remote may well erase some of the most pervasive political problems encountered in the office, but it may also create new ones. So what happens to office politics when you don’t have an office? Does working remotely remove the power dynamics of the office, or simply repackage them?

How remote work can break office politics

In the office, avoiding politics entirely is pretty much impossible, and a toxic work environment can quickly crush creativity, erode engagement and destroy morale. There’s little doubt that working away from the office removes some of the most common political issues – things like lunch-hour cliques and water-cooler whispers – but the positive aspects of remote work don’t end there. Working remotely also creates several new opportunities to fix some typical office problems.

First, it provides the perfect opening to reset relationships. If you’ve ever struggled with your working relationships, this change in environment is the ideal moment to reflect on what caused these issues and how you can improve the situation next time. It presents the perfect opportunity for substance to prevail, and for people to be judged on the true value of their work, instead of relying on showboating or bragging. Working remotely also allows us to diversify our networks and build new relationships with employees all over the world. Because this reduces the biases we may have for people who work close to us, it also acts as a social leveler.

But working remotely is by no means a magic bullet. Even if our working world changed overnight, human nature hasn’t. Humans are political by nature and whether we realize it or not, we’re always looking for ways to use our social skills to satisfy our own interests. Plus, online environments usually just replicate their offline equivalent. The internet may have begun as an alternative version of reality, but it’s mostly used to replicate the things we do in real life – shopping, dating, working, chatting. So what political problems can we expect to see in a remote environment?

The rise of virtual workplace politics

We know that a successful remote culture largely rests on effective communication, and because of this most of the potential workplace politics remote teams encounter will be communication-based. You can’t accurately gauge tone of voice in emails or Slack comments. “Chat literate” people may actually read sentiment into their colleagues’ punctuation choices when none was intended, and body language and nuance can easily get lost even in video calls. This means misunderstanding and conflict may be more likely to occur – and because employees can’t easily resolve issues in-person, resentment may fester. Bottled-up frustrations are challenging enough in the office, but these may be amplified in the digital realm.

Then there’s the issue communication being invisible. While async communication can be seen as the secret ingredient to remote team productivity, not everyone follows best practices on keeping it transparent. Whereas you can see who’s meeting whom in the office, in the virtual world it’s much more opaque. Without communication guidelines that keep conversation in public channels, people might worry that there are private conversations going on that they’re not part of, or wonder what chats and channels are active that they don’t even know about. When you can’t see or hear conversation happening, it can tap into and exacerbate existing feelings of isolation or alienation – feelings that remote workers are often more likely to experience.

There’s also the problem of digital empathy – or lack thereof. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that people can be crueler online than they would be in person – anyone who’s read comments on social media will be familiar with this. This attitude is called “online disinhibition” and research shows that when people are anonymous and don’t have to deal with “real” communication, they can lack empathy. Though working remotely doesn’t grant anonymity, it does erase important elements of understanding and empathy – things like body language and tone of voice. This means that remote teams may also suffer from online disinhibition, and not be as mindful of the feelings of their colleagues.

Remote visibility rewards ego

The virtual workplace itself requires a new form of communication that can easily create tensions. When platforms like Slack become the center of all company communication, a person’s relative activity (or inactivity) suddenly becomes very visible. Posting announcements, weighing in on public threads, sharing photos or reacting to other people’s discussions can signal just how “engaged”, “enthusiastic” or even “important” you are. In contrast, employees who spend less time on these platforms, or are relatively “quiet” in terms of what they post, may feel inadequate or be seen as less strategically involved than those who dominate the scene.

To bridge the invisibility of remote work, virtual communication also depends individual self-advocacy to keep people updated on activity and work progress. This can mean announcing your own achievements and wins – something that not everyone is comfortable doing. Quite quickly, employees who don’t feel comfortable blowing their own trumpet – or don’t have particularly exciting updates – are overshadowed by those who are confident bringing attention to their successes. We recently wrote about some of the drawbacks of video calls, and the fact that they can easily be dominated by more extroverted employees – so it seems this is a political issue that affects several areas of remote work.

The responsibility of culture

These are all legitimate concerns, and it’s misguided to think that remote work will just erase workplace politics. But as our working world continues to change, it’s clear that it isn’t virtual tech or how we use it that’s at fault here; rather it’s company culture. Tools like Slack may amplify ego, but it isn’t built into them – it’s up to each company to lay out the rules of engagement to protect against it. Creating a remote-first culture is the single biggest thing any organization can do to cut down on remote politics – and while this takes time, and is a constant work in progress, no other act has as big an impact when it comes to making employees feel safe, valued, visible and engaged.

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