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. 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? 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. But by following the strategies outlined in this article, you’re far more likely to be “politically” successful during this liminal time as our conceptions of office life continue to shift.
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.
Politics Podcast: The Most Competitive Races In 2020 – FiveThirtyEight
In covering the 2020 election, we’ve focused plenty on the likeliest tipping-point states — the states likeliest to give the winning candidate his 270th electoral vote. Those states include Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida and Michigan. While they may be the most important states in 2020, they aren’t actually the most competitive. Those contests are in Georgia, Iowa, Ohio and even Texas, which are polling closer to a dead heat. In this installment of the FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast, Micah Cohen and Sarah Frostenson discuss where the most competitive races are for the presidency, House and Senate.
You can listen to the episode by clicking the “play” button in the audio player above or by downloading it in iTunes, the ESPN App or your favorite podcast platform. If you are new to podcasts, learn how to listen.
The FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast is recorded Mondays and Thursdays. Help new listeners discover the show by leaving us a rating and review on iTunes. Have a comment, question or suggestion for “good polling vs. bad polling”? Get in touch by email, on Twitter or in the comments.
How remote work has changed discussing politics in the office – CNBC
With the U.S. presidential election just weeks away, political discussion is top of mind for many Americans, including among colleagues in the workplace. Back in February, a survey of 500 employees by the research firm Gartner found that 78% of people talk about politics at work, and 47% of people say the 2020 presidential election has impacted their ability to get work done.
In the eight months since, the election cycle, the workplace and daily life in general have transformed in countless unpredictable ways due to the coronavirus pandemic. And now that a widespread adoption of remote work has relaxed many workplace behaviors and policies, what does that mean for discussing politics in a virtual office?
Political conversations may be more intentional
In some ways, colleagues may be making an effort to have more meaningful political discussions in the workplace, says Roger Brooks, president and CEO of the educational non-profit Facing History & Ourselves.
“One advantage to being remote is that you have to be really intentional about your conversations,” he tells CNBC Make It. “If you want to have a conversation, you have to go out of your way to have it.”
“That intentionality can give you a moment before you start a complicated conversation to center yourself, and maybe your partner will as well, in a controversial topic,” he continues.
And because you’re more likely to enter a political workplace discussion more intentionally online, rather than riffing on the day’s headlines with a coworker you ran into in the hallway, “some of these conversations might be better than when they were just happening in-person,” Roger Brooks says.
Employers could play a role in encouraging respectful dialogue, says Dustin York, a communications professor at Maryville University who served as a consultant for Barack Obama’s 2008 U.S. presidential campaign. HR leaders can send a company-wide note with guidelines about discussing political news in the work setting, or they may invite trained facilitators to lead a discussion about having difficult conversations at work.
Heidi Brooks, an organizational behavior professor at the Yale School of Management, adds that leaders would do well to encourage and model behaviors that support belonging and inclusion at work, which may be strained during the pandemic. “It still matters to be a team that people want to be a part of,” she says, “and what makes a team one people want to be a part of is the quality of relationships among members.”
One way to take a stance on the election that fosters belonging is to encourage employees to vote, Heidi Brooks adds. Initiatives including Time to Vote and Civic Alliance are non-partisan efforts to increase voter participation by helping workers register to vote, providing polling place information and giving employees time off to cast their ballots.
Discouraging political speech could backfire
Though companies may want to avoid encouraging discussion on controversial topics at work, statements from management that seek to limit political speech can backfire. In late September, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong faced backlash after he published a blog post in which he discouraged employee activism and discussing political and social issues at work. Pointing to what he referred to as “internal strife” among tech companies including Google and Facebook, which “engage in a wide variety of social activism, even those unrelated to what the company does,” he wrote:
“While I think these efforts are well intentioned, they have the potential to destroy a lot of value at most companies, both by being a distraction, and by creating internal division,” Armstrong said. “I believe most employees don’t want to work in these divisive environments.”
In response to the memo, more than 60 employees, or roughly 5% of Coinbase’s workforce, accepted exit packages as of October 8, according to Forbes.
Messages like this could be impractical to enforce, says Vanessa Matsis-McCready, associate general counsel and director of HR forthe HR service provider Engage PEO: “You can have a policy that all discussions at work must be work-related, but then you’ll have a morale issue.”
Furthermore, while workers don’t have a constitutional right to free speech at work (except in the case of government employees who have some protections), workers may have some protections at the state level for political expression and off-duty conduct. In California, for example, employers are prohibited from adopting or enforcing any rule that prevents employees from engaging in political activities. And Oregon’s Worker Freedom Act prohibits employers from forcing workers to attend political meetings and distribute political communications.
In other cases, political speech in the workplace may be protected if it relates to workers’ rights to engage in concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act. This includes talking with coworkers about your working conditions, pay or benefits — for example, if you’re discussing paid family leave and your support of a candidate proposing a policy at the federal level.
When politics enters the chatroom
Instead of attempting to limit political speech, Matsis-McCready suggests employers lay out clear guidelines about what is and isn’t appropriate that are neutral and enforced uniformly.
The mass switch to remote work could be a good time to clarify these policies, she adds. For example, you may say overall that Zoom backgrounds must be free of prominent slogans and logos, including but not limited to campaign signage and merchandise. Matsis-McCready says her employer provides workers with HR-approved virtual backgrounds with the company’s logo that can be used during video meetings. Leaders can reiterate if the same no-slogans rule applies to workplace attire during video calls.
For employees, keeping discussions neutral may be the best option if you don’t have clear rules on political speech, Matsis-McCready says. Disciplinary action may not be out of the question if your conversation isn’t about working conditions (and therefore isn’t protected under the NLRA) and it extends beyond your personal break time to the point that it impacts the work you’re expected to get done.
“My advice to employees,” she says, “is to keep workplace discussions neutral. I’d want to make sure that if I’m discussing my personal beliefs, that it’s on my own time — like a lunch break — and be mindful of the clock.”
Another guideline: If you wouldn’t have a certain conversation in the break room of your office, reconsider whether you’re willing to have it in a work-provided messaging platform.
Focus on values rather than candidates
As protests and movements showed us over the summer, many workers expect their employers to speak out on certain issues when it comes to racial justice, and the role policy plays in social issues and equity.
York recommends organizations make clear their stance on certain issues, such as diversity, equity and inclusion, rather than discuss any one party or political candidate if it’s not directly related to the work they do. It’s the leader’s role to set the tone and model expected behavior, he adds, and remember that tensions in the workplace are likely higher than normal due to circumstances of living and working through a global pandemic.
Individuals with more influence in the organization should be aware of how they’re using their position to share information and engage others.
“If you’re on the upper side of power, it’s your job to reach down and listen to equalize your power whenever possible,” Roger Brooks says. That includes being aware of power imbalances and whether people of dissenting views can speak openly in the workplace, facilitating respectful dialogue that assumes positive intent, and reminding colleagues that while they may view issues differently, they align in the ways they contribute to the health of the organization.
“Engaging really effectively and productively across difference allows people to better work together,” he says.
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