We have been virtual for almost a year and a half right now and lately I have been reflecting that we are testing the limits of remote work. In my own environment I am now seeing clear trends of what I would call very potent “digital cabals” that is completely unaddressed and misunderstood by HR – remember teams went virtual overnight last year and there has been zero training on fully digital communications at any level. Team members have been left to “figure it out”. I found a really great article on HBR that I am reproducing below that offers a great perspective on where this is going.
Across jobs, companies, and industries, people’s success has always depended not just on what they produce or deliver, but also on their ability to navigate the murky waters of office politics. A great deal of scientific research has explored the hidden potent forces underlying the formal and informal power dynamics in any group or organization, unsurprisingly highlighting the pervasive and sometimes toxic nature of office politics.
But what happens to office politics when you remove the office? Although virtual work has existed for some time now, the pandemic has dramatically changed the context of work by fully removing the office, eliminating interpersonal contact and physical human interaction — and with it, opportunities to engage in tactics of manipulation or impression management. As one of our clients recently lamented: “Without the office, how can I pretend to work?”
Many people have by now recovered a certain degree of normalcy by returning to the office, albeit less often, and without as many colleagues around. In fact, for a large proportion of the industrialized workforce, the big bulk of work continues to be done from home, with most work interactions confined to Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc.
What does this all mean for office politics? Do the old norms and rules still apply? Can we expect a reduction in bias and nepotism, and an increase in meritocratic talent management practices? Is technology sanitizing the dark side of human behavior at work, forcing us to focus on our actual job performance, reducing the impact of informal networks and soft power at work?
Even without the office, it’s naïve to expect office politics to disappear, much like a company’s culture isn’t erased just because people are working from home. In our view, there are three key opportunities that professionals can seize during this transition to office-less work politics:
The opportunity to reset relationships. First, the shift to remote work has profoundly upended the patterns of how we interact at work, and this represents an opportunity to reset your relationships with your boss and colleagues. If you’ve been less than successful in the past at office politics, this is a moment to reflect on how you can turn the situation around.
Start by considering whether your boss had reason — justified or not — to question your ability to deliver on assignments as promised. The shift to virtual work is your chance to lay out expectations for both performance and communication channels. If you’re crystal clear about how frequently she would like you to communicate with her, and in what way, it gives you the opportunity to over deliver and ensure that she never has to question whether you’re working on the right things, or whether they’ll be done in a timely fashion.
Then, consider the social side of office politics. It’s possible that others invested more time and energy in building personal relationships with colleagues, while you held yourself at a remove. The pandemic provides a natural opportunity to engage more deeply — whether or not you’ve done so in the past. Try suggesting catch-up calls or genuinely inquiring about others’ well-being.
The opportunity for substance to prevail. At one time or another, almost all of us have had an irritating coworker who is “all hat and no cattle,” touting their (minimal) accomplishments and charming their way into undeserved promotions. That form of office politics is almost universally reviled — and thankfully, it’s much harder for braggarts and showboats to prevail in a virtual environment. They don’t have easy access to interstitial moments — in the breakroom or walking out to the parking lot after work — to press their agendas. And in a world where every extra minute on a Zoom meeting feels like a lifetime, their bloviating and chest-thumping can be seen for the waste of time that it is. A virtual work environment offers much more of an opportunity to be judged on the output of your work, rather than your messaging around it.
In some cases, the shift to virtual may even help limit unconscious biases. Automattic, the company behind WordPress, actually hires job candidates via chat; new employees often have never spoken to someone live before they start the job. “We’re always looking at what we can do to make it as much about the work,” company founder Matt Mullenweg told The New York Times, “and not extraneous stuff, like how you’re dressed, how you showed up, how you sound, how you look, where you live. All those things ultimately don’t matter, particularly for an internet company. So, let’s just remove it from the process entirely.”
The opportunity to diversify your networks. These days, many companies — if not most — are international. The discussion around working virtually often focuses on the fact that it’s harder to network with colleagues with whom you used to share an office, for the obvious reason that we tend to build deeper emotional and social connections with people who are physically closer to us. But working from remote locations also gives you an advantage: the opportunity to build relationships with colleagues and clients worldwide that you may have neglected otherwise. In that sense, virtual work is a great leveler, because it reduced our bias for working with those who are close to us, which, by extension, invites us to work with people who are not just physically distant, but also psychologically more diverse (culture and values travel together).
So, this is a great opportunity to diversity your networks. You can do this by setting up one-on-one calls, or even engaging in small ways, such as sending an email to check in, or forwarding interesting articles. This becomes an important competitive advantage because so many professionals — because they haven’t consciously focused on it — tend to have remarkably homogeneous networks, filled with people who work at their same company or in their same office. You can make your network much more resilient, and ultimately more useful, by focusing on developing “bridging capital” — building heterogeneous connections with colleagues who are different from you — and connecting with colleagues in other parts of the world.
To be sure, an office-less environment isn’t a panacea. Human nature hasn’t changed overnight, and back channel communication and power plays won’t simply evaporate. It’s also possible that, as the world slowly reopens and some professionals come back to the office, we run the risk of developing a “two-tiered” system of office politics, where the people who are able to be together in the office experience preferential treatment compared to those who are still working from home, even in the absence of actual performance differences between both groups. Those are legitimate concerns. But by following the strategies above, you’re far more likely to be “politically” successful during this liminal time as our conceptions of office life continue to shift.
Let me know what you think!
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My name's phil mora and I blog about the things I love: fitness, hacking work, tech and anything holistic.
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