Is remote work making us paranoid?

The number of people working remotely has skyrocketed since January 2020, with approximately half the US labour force working from home in the early days of the pandemic.
The number of people working remotely has skyrocketed since January 2020, with approximately half the US labour force working from home in the early days of the pandemic.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Ms Therese Nauwelaertz had been working in information technology at a large healthcare organisation in Seattle for nine months when she got a new project manager. She still had the same supervisor, but this new person was a layer in between them. Up until the new person started, "it was pretty smooth going for a long time", Ms Nauwelaertz, 48, said. But just a few days after the new manager started, "that's when the feedback break happened".

Ms Nauwelaertz got left out of a strategy session via Zoom, and she only found out about it from her peers who had been included. Then the e-mail and chats from her co-workers slowed to a trickle. She heard another co-worker was laid off.

"That's when I got really suspicious, and the paranoia started setting in," Ms Nauwelaertz said.

The number of people working remotely has skyrocketed since January 2020, with approximately half the United States labour force working from home in the early days of the pandemic, according to a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research. Those workers tend to be more educated and wealthier than workers whose jobs cannot be performed remotely, and low-wage workers have been much more likely to lose their jobs during the pandemic.

While some have returned to the office since last spring, a significant number have not. Many estimates of how many workers office workers projected to work permanently at home, post-pandemic, range from 20 per cent to 30 per cent, up from under 10 per cent before the coronavirus hit.

But having millions more Americans communicating completely virtually with their co-workers does not mean our emotional office dynamics have caught up yet to our new videoconference world. Many are feeling a spectrum of new anxieties about their interactions with colleagues.

Employees are asking themselves questions like: Is that Slack message unanswered because I'm getting fired, or because my boss is dealing with remote schooling her kid? Did that joke land flat on that video call because it was a bad joke, or am I falling out of favour?

Past research on the topic of organisational and social paranoia shows that working from home may exacerbate uncertainty about status, which can lead to over-processing information and rumination, said Mr Roderick Kramer, a professor of organisational behaviour at Stanford Graduate School of Business, who has studied paranoia at work.

Remote work can contribute to "feeling out of the loop, because you're missing the kinds of ad hoc conversations that tend to reassure us we're in good standing", Mr Kramer said.

So-called organisational paranoia is not always irrational. And there is even a term for that kind of sensible hypervigilance: prudent paranoia. "Part of paranoia is about self-presentational issues," Mr Kramer said. And it is not just in our heads that we are being judged for how we look, and how our homes look, on video chats.

"I'm self-conscious about weird things," said Mr Mike Jordan, 44, who does market research for a real estate company in Chicago. He described feeling odd about his eyes darting all over the place during video meetings.

Mr Jordan also said that his company is undergoing leadership changes, and that if it were operating in a real office, he would be able to catch a vibe about how others were feeling about the staffing shifts, but now, it happens in a digital vacuum. Without that connective gossip, "when the change happens, you don't know how to take it", he said.

Mr Jordan is managing a new employee in the pandemic who is fresh out of college, and he said he has been learning to err on the side of over-communication with her. "She is brand-new to professional full-time work, and there are a lot of things I feel she might pick up through osmosis in the office, but I need to explain," he said. Mr Jordan told her she could text or call him any time she had a question or needed a response, because he knows that he is juggling a lot, and does not want to leave her hanging.

The onus is on employers to bridge the communication gaps left by our new remote reality, said author Minda Harts of The Memo: What Women Of Colour Need To Know To Secure A Seat At The Table. She suggested having more structured video meetings so that everyone can be heard without anxiety about breaking into the conversation; for big meetings, having someone be in charge of taking notes and ensuring equitable contributions can help.

This person can observe that, for example, "when Sonia is going off mute, no one gave her space to talk". Ms Harts also recommended that offices try to set up virtual water cooler moments for employees - and open a videoconference or Slack channel for chatting. "Create opportunities where people can have organic conversation and still build social capital," she said.