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Is Home Working Making Your Staff Paranoid?

In almost every workplace there will be a tricky mix of personal ambitions, needs and emotions. Any good manager will tell you that they keep a close eye out for cliques, conflicts and ‘power struggles’, usually by watching closely to detect body language and relationships within their teams.

It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that the careful balance of politics that exists within offices has been impacted by the shift to remote working. Indeed, even before the age of coronavirus, academic studies into paranoia have alluded to working alone or away from social setting and the fact that such situations can exacerbate uncertainty about status, leading to reduced confidence and in some cases a developing sense of paranoia.

The key word here is ‘uncertainty’, something that we are all having to live with a lot more these days, not least our own government with how to manage the pandemic (not to mention international arguments about vaccines, hard borders and Brexit!). In a physical office situation, colleagues can pick up on one another’s moods and anxieties, offering words of comfort and reassurance, and forming unofficial support groups between themselves. Changes in management hierarchy can be explained with a simple person-to-person catch-up between meetings and, indeed, welcome drinks where this involves a lateral hire, for example.

In the current era of remote working, gaps in communication open up far more easily and these are soon filled with doubt. This phenomenon was the subject of a recent article in the New York Times which argues that working from home is increasing the levels of anxiety amonst staff due to the lack of in-person office interactions. Video calls are functional and efficient but they are no substitute for a reassuring exchange with a colleague whilst making a round of tea in the communal department kitchen.

Employers may want to consider the adverse impact of minimalist communication on employee anxiety. Some of the examples of employee anxieties given in the NY Times article are typical of those we should be aware of, including:

  • Worry about how they might come over on Zoom;
  • Finding it hard to communicate concerns or issues on group video calls;
  • Wondering whether unanswered emails or other messages mean they’re going to lose their job;
  • Whether a change of manager is due to concerns about performance;
  • If they have been missed out of a meeting because they are out of favour.

It may be worth considering opportunities for dialogue away from video meetings and emails and encouraging colleagues to chat by phone or email, even when there is no specific topic to be discussed. 

The important thing here is to be aware that communication is different when staff are operating remotely and, without easy access to colleagues for support, guidance and assurance , a small worry can grow quickly if unchecked.