The Impact Of Remote Work On Office Power Dynamics

A man is in a virtual meeting with a woman.

As our environment changes from the office to remote work, businesses have seen a shift in power dynamics between employees and managers.

Remote working has become the new normal as businesses respond to the growing safety concerns created by the pandemic. A global survey conducted by PwC consisted of 32,500 participants from 19 countries. 72% of the participants stated that their ideal work environment was a mix between in-person and remote work.

If you want to increase your performance and overcome the obstacles of working from home, check out our free Working From Home Guide.

So, how has remote work impacted office power dynamics?

Deborah Gruenfeld, the professor of organisational behaviour at Stanford Graduate School of Business, suggests that the office power dynamics have shifted because employees are more likely to feel confident voicing their opinions when in their virtual office. 

High-ranked managers and executives often take up more office space and speak and interrupt more often than lower-ranking employees. When online, a manager’s office is the same size as everyone else’s, kids are yelling in the background, and they wear everyday clothes. The hierarchy is blurred as these higher-ups become more human. 

Deborah explains, “Because many of the cues we rely on to navigate these complex social situations are absent, we tend to be less sensitive to hierarchical differences.” 

Can you notice a difference in how you speak to your boss online compared to when you’re in the office?

A blurred hierarchy may seem positive if employees are more likely to engage and feel less intimidated. However, there are cons. 

Deborah states, “It also creates a context in which it is easier to make a faux pas—to inadvertently offend a superior, or to fail to create a safe context for subordinates if leaders don’t actively re-assure others that they are in control”.

Confidence can quickly disappear when speaking out of line and can have lasting consequences on professional relationships. 

Deborah suggests social cues are harder to read when you’re not in the same room and that a lack of hierarchical context can cause new levels of social anxiety. 

How Can Leaders Create A Comfortable And Inclusive Virtual Space?

  1. Communicate consistently with your team. Communicate your team’s expectations, tasks, and goals throughout the week and send an email to summarise this. Let your team know if anyone has any concerns to voice them or send you a direct message.
  2. Divide teams into different Zoom or Google Meet meetings. A smaller group will create more opportunities for everyone to speak. Send calendar alerts to remind your team of upcoming virtual meetings.
  3. Develop a system or a set of rules to be in place to avoid interrupting others. Often, video-calling platforms provide you with tools, such as “Raise my hand” to combat this. 
  4. Invite employees to lead in discussions. Listen and, if need be, guide the team with open-ended questions to encourage solutions.
  5. Welcome different ideas and opinions. Remind the team that it’s important to welcome different ideas and opinions rather than criticise. 
  6. Check-in with your team frequently. Check in with your team throughout the day and express empathy. 

Navigating through uncertain times and settling into a new virtual office can be overwhelming. It’s important to take care of yourself and help others when needed. With new challenges come new solutions, get creative and keep communicating, whether online or offline. 

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