Therese Nauwelaertz had been working in information technology at a large health care organization 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,” Nauwelaertz said. But just a few days after the new manager started, “that’s when the feedback break happened.”
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 emails 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,” Nauwelaertz said.
The number of people working remotely has skyrocketed since January 2020, with approximately half the U.S. labor 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% to 30%, up from under 10% before the coronavirus.
But 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 favor?
Small moments are becoming amplified for Shireen Ali-Khan, a consultant in London. Brief interactions she’d normally let go — a minute or two out of a 10-hour day — become opportunities for obsessing, “because essentially you’re at home looking at the wall,” Ali-Khan said. She described a senior colleague asking her to manage a virtual mailbox, which, according to Ali-Khan, is a task that is far below her skill and pay level.
Ali-Khan politely pushed back, but she was given the task anyway and she felt disrespected. While this would have been a minor irritation in normal times, “you just lose a lot of that personal touch, then you read into it more, you’re going on one nugget of information,” she said — rather than a fully formed interpersonal relationship.
She ended up venting to a colleague about the interaction, which helped her feel better, and she has realized it really wasn’t a big deal. She hasn’t done anything with the mailbox and hasn’t received any blowback from that.
Past research on the topic of organizational and social paranoia shows that working from home may exacerbate uncertainty about status, which can lead to over-processing information and rumination, said Roderick Kramer, a professor of organizational behavior 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,” Kramer said.
So-called organizational paranoia isn’t always irrational. And there’s even a term for that kind of sensible hypervigilance: prudent paranoia. “Part of paranoia is about self-presentational issues,” Kramer said. And it’s not just in our heads that we are being judged for how we look, and how our homes look, on video chats.
There’s a Twitter account called Room Rater that gives ratings to people’s video chat backgrounds, and at this writing it has more than 374,000 followers. A typical tweet from the account is, “Good plant. Couch. There’s a pillow. Lovely morning light. Needs much else. Art. 6/10.” It’s not unreasonable to think our co-workers are engaging in some of the same kinds of judgment.
“I’m self-conscious about weird things,” said Mike Jordan, 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.
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.
Liz Drews started a new job as the manager of a merchant operations team in Omaha, Nebraska, during the pandemic and worries a lot about how she comes off on her video calls, since she has a 2-year-old at home. “I have a house that’s not organized or clean right now,” she said. “Especially in a new role where nobody knows that history, it’s a little embarrassing that I have this dresser sitting behind me with a sippy cup on it.”
Jane Marie, who is the owner of the podcast production company Little Everywhere and is a single mother, said she’s worried that she is losing out on business opportunities because of how she comes off on video calls. “I wear the straight bangs across short bob that only eccentric gallery owners in movies have,” she said. “I always worry if I’m meeting new people remotely on Zoom, I won’t get my serious side across — already being a woman is the worst for that.”
Kramer said that “when people feel like they’re a token, the only woman in a group, or the only Black person,” that can lead to more anxiety. Minda Harts, author of “The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table” and a career consultant for women of color, said that “many women of color, including myself, are acutely aware of being the only one, and that feeling is compounded at home.”
She added that she’s heard from some of her clients that they are changing clothes more than once a day because they’re concerned about their image on video chats; others have received insulting comments about their natural Black hairstyles.
The onus is on employers to bridge the communication gaps left by our new remote reality, Harts said. 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.” 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.
Jordan is managing a new employee in the pandemic who is fresh out of college, and he said he’s been learning to err on the side of over-communication with her. “She is brand-new to professional full-time work, and there’s a lot of things I feel she might pick up through osmosis in the office, but I need to explain,” he said. 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.
Nauwelaertz could have used that kind of manager; it turned out she was right to be paranoid. On a Thursday morning a week after the new project manager started, there was silence on all channels from her colleagues. She was dropped from a meeting without notice — it was just taken off her calendar.
When she finally got an email from her supervisor Friday asking for a meeting at noon that day, she knew that she was getting laid off as part of a restructuring. “I felt paranoid, and everybody I talked to said it was probably paranoid, but I was correct,” she said. “It was actually happening exactly how I thought.”