Video can break down hierarchies by bringing people into each other’s worlds more fully
I recently had a frustrating phone call that was full of trial and error. I was calling a professor for this story, and I was already a bit nervous, as I usually am when chatting with accomplished experts in their fields. Then came a series of technological mishaps — a spotty connection, Zoom problems, and a Bluetooth nightmare.
Though we were eventually able to conduct our interview, I still worried that the bumpy beginning would lead my source to judge me negatively. Would he think that I wasn’t competent at my job?
It’s ironic that the episode itself was illustrative of the very topic we were discussing: how remote work impacts power dynamics and hierarchies in professional relationships. How do managers’ relationships with their underlings change when all communication has been relegated online? And does your relationship with your manager change when meetings become Zoom calls and feedback goes from a coffee meeting to a prolonged Slack conversation?
For one thing, just because your boss is effective in the office does not make them good at managing people online. “In remote working contexts, different forms of leadership are more successful,” says Emma Russell, senior lecturer in occupational and organizational psychology at the University of Sussex Business School. For instance, Russell suggests that highly successful digital teams designate project-specific managers rather than leaning into rigid hierarchies.“This indicates that virtual working has the capacity to generate flattened hierarchical structures.”
How do managers’ relationships with their underlings change when all communication has been relegated online?
Recent research also shows that managing digitally calls for different personality types. Unlike in person management, being a charismatic extrovert is not likely to help a manager in a virtual setting. Managers who are helpful, generous, organized, and give feedback freely are seen as better leaders, while charm and intelligence are more impactful in offline contexts, according to the researchers, who noted that the difference between what made a good leader online versus offline was “stark.”
In managing online, patience is key, as communication is often delayed and technology can break down, rendering interaction impossible. Unfortunately, patience is a quality many managers lack, which can cause a lot of problems on virtual teams.
“Research has shown that even a millisecond worth of lag means that people think that people aren’t responding quickly enough, which leads them to believe that they think that the other person is not listening to them,” says David Cook, an anthropologist at the University College London, whose research focuses on remote workers and digital nomads. “Overall, there is a decreased feeling of trust, so the syncing issues are really important.”
Cook says people he’s talked to recently have relayed to him their own struggles communicating with their superiors via video calls. Often, these workers feel as if they can’t get a word in edgewise in their meetings or are forced to interrupt others, leading to increased tension that leads people to occasionally shut down and stop trying.
Because remote work means taking Zoom calls in our personal spaces, managers become increasingly aware of an employee’s home situation. This can have negative consequences. “If employees are embarrassed about their own living quarters in comparison to a leaders’, or if they are worried about revealing a potentially stigmatized identity (for example, an interracial marriage, adopted children, a same-sex partner), allowing coworkers to have a ‘window’ into their personal life can serve to highlight hierarchies and make them feel less comfortable,” says Katina Sawyer, an assistant professor of management at George Washington University School of Business.
It’s often recommended that employees clearly delineate their professional and personal spaces to “avoid looking unprofessional” — as one Apartment Therapy article shows. That’s helpful advice, but if you live in a dingy studio apartment, have rowdy children, or moved back into your parents’ home, it’s also difficult to act on. Who can afford to “avoid looking unprofessional”? Most likely not the assistant making $35,000 a year.
“When we communicate via Zoom, participants are often presented side by side on the computer screen, with it being difficult to tell status and power, as all images are equal size except for the person speaking at that moment.”
In other cases, though, these personal details can actually bring people closer together. Video chats “might have positive effects in breaking down hierarchies because they bring people into each other’s worlds more fully,” says Sawyer. Seeing your boss interact with children and pets, or seeing their own (possibly messy) office space humanizes them, which can erode hierarchical differences between employer and employee.
Comila Shahani-Denning, professor of psychology at Hofstra University, says that Zoom’s visual presentation acts as an equalizer too. “When we communicate via Zoom, participants are often presented side by side on the computer screen, with it being difficult to tell status and power, as all images are equal size except for the person speaking at that moment,” she says. Plus, “people can voice their thoughts using the chat feature — this can be a lot less intimidating for more junior people who may be otherwise uncomfortable speaking up in a large meeting.”
Bradley Brummel, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Tulsa, echoed this in an interview I conducted with him a few weeks ago about miscommunication on Slack. Brummel says that online chat distances employees from their words, helping them feel more comfortable speaking up — and increasing the likelihood that people will consider their ideas fully. “There’s a chance there that because the ideas don’t come as clearly tagged to the humans that they come from, even though we know it came from them, the ideas have a little more chance to be evaluated fairly and democratically,” he says.
Some argue that shifting toward virtual teams can strengthen teams and even increase employees’ mental health. Research from 2016 shows that working remotely allows employees to remove themselves from negative, harmful workplace relationships while also fostering and strengthening positive ones. It found that employees were able to connect with each other more openly, away from the prying eyes of their managers and other colleagues. Think about having a conversation with a co-worker in a private Slack chat versus a whispered conversation desk-side. This diminished surveillance results in employees feeling less under the thumb and more closely aligned with each other. (Though it’s worth noting that managers, if so inclined, actually can access employee Slack messages in many cases. For truly private conversations, it’s safer to text via personal phones).
The increased freedom that employees experience out of the watchful eye of their bosses has a limit, though. Many managers take advantage of the blurring boundaries between home and work, creating the expectation that because you’re always near a computer, you can hop on and take care of something any time of the day or night. This boundary-blurring, says Russell, “is often enabled when organizations provide staff with work-extendable technologies (for example, smartphones, tablets, and associated apps and software that means they can be contacted out of hours). Research shows that workers, who might otherwise have strict boundaries about when and where they can be contacted about work, feel pressure to make exceptions when the person contacting them is their boss.” These unhealthy expectations from managers, whether explicitly or implicitly expressed, can create unhealthy workplaces and lead employees to feel betrayed, says Russell.
Trevor Foulk, an assistant professor of management and organization at the University of Maryland whose research focuses on workplace power dynamics, says that further issues between management and employees can occur because bosses and other powerful people are better able to focus on others besides themselves when they feel needed, but that employee needs may get lost in the shuffle online. “There’s a lot of research suggesting that powerful people tend to focus on their own goals and agendas, and tend to think of powerless people as just means to their own ends,” he says.
Foulk says that online conversations tend to be more transactional, and as a result, “leaders may miss subtle cues in their followers’ voice and body language that indicate that they’re really in need of something,” leaving the manager to continue focusing on their own needs and desires, instead of the people whom they preside over.
Ultimately, “power differences will not disappear — they will just be manifested differently,” says Shahani-Denning.
As someone with a lot of social anxiety and a decent dose of suspicion toward authority, I’ve always been grateful when given the chance to work from home; I’m a writer, and so online chats and emails were always a more natural, less anxious way to communicate than sitting in an in-person meeting with them. But it wasn’t until I quit my job and went freelance that I was actually, well, free: free from the stress of having a boss, of worrying where I stand compared to my coworkers. And while millions of quarantined office workers are reaping the benefits (and struggling with the challenges) of working remotely, hierarchies will remain in place unless change comes to the systems themselves, and not merely through their expression and medium.