The downsides to remote-work technologies: 5 insights

While remote work offers benefits ranging from flexibility with schedules to eliminating commutes, the virtual model also introduces downsides such as isolation, exclusion and surveillance, The Wall Street Journal reported Oct. 29. 

Lebene Soga, PhD, director of the international management and business administration program at University of Reading in Britain, studies remote work and how it reshapes work relationships. Dr. Soga and his team recently analyzed how 1,200 staff members and more than 60 managers interacted virtually at a Fortune 500 company. The study was conducted before and during the pandemic. 

Here are five insights from Dr. Soga and his team shared with the Journal during a recent interview. 

1. Remote work platforms like Zoom offer us more of an illusion of connecting with colleagues rather than fostering deeper relationships, Dr. Soga said. Creating a relationship solely via video communication platform often begins with "ritual sniffing," or when people measure up each other to figure out the best way to make an impression rather than forming an authentic bond. 

2. Virtual and tech-supported collaboration offers a slew of benefits for managers and employees, but the four biggest risks are isolation, exclusion, surveillance and self censorship. Dr. Soga cited having worked with managers who realize they have become distant from employees they are supposed to be leading. 

"They have become isolated from their teams because they begin to use these collaborative technologies as mere transmission devices for conveying messages," he said. "This is a case of tele-leadership, almost like a military leader transmitting directives to soldiers in the field. Technology must not become the only means by which we sustain work relationships or close relational gaps." 

3. Surveillance is another downside of remote work, as collaborative technologies make it easier for managers and employees to see who is present, who is pretending to be available and so on. Employees can check on their peers and also their managers, known as bottom-up surveillance. 

4. The issue with increased surveillance is that it undermines trust by making employees feel policed and also results in people questioning the integrity of their managers. 

5. Managers must look to overcome issues like surveillance and isolation by taking concrete actions to "encourage voice in the organization," Dr. Soga said, adding that approaching employees for one-on-one conversations is a great starting point. 

"Managers should go out of their way to arrange meetups, online or in person, for casual conversation about work and nonwork issues. And broadly speaking, the most important thing across the board with remote work is to find ways of fostering social connection."


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