Common sense and experience dictate that there will always be office politics at work, but what happens when we remove the office?
This question is more pertinent than ever because for the first time in history, a large portion of the industrialized workforce has been detached from its physical habitat. Can technology erase, or at least sanitize, the invisible forces that govern the power dynamics of an organization? Do toxic Machiavellian strategies still have a place in a digital-only world? Are political skills still a strong career lubricant in the seemingly sterile age of Zoom meetings? And if all this is gone, are we actually better off?
There is a long tradition within organizational psychology to study office politics. This is defined broadly as any attempt to operate outside formal organizational processes to accomplish personal objectives, often at the expense of the organization. Although office politics have a bad reputation, they have generally been seen as inevitable. Some academics say there can be a bright side to politics. By helping coworkers negotiate between different alternatives, an employee may reach a consensus that balances their own and the organization‘s interests. Politics are also an essential ingredient of trust and reciprocity, so they strengthen interpersonal relations at work, whether for positive or negative purposes.
Good or bad, researchers always studied politics in the context of physical or analog interactions between coworkers. From rumors, gossip, and tacit deals around the mythical office watercooler, to the now very distant after-hours networking at a bar, organizational politics always presumed offline contact between people, in part because these interactions were harder to trace and register. Many of the key ingredients that fuel office politics (chemistry, charisma, culture fit, attractiveness, and social skills) are more likely to manifest in the real world rather than online.
Moving the office online, and making every interaction between employees (and their bosses) standardized and digitized by technology does make a difference. For instance, people spend a day during a traditional, offline board meeting interacting individually, during breaks, at the bar, and at a post-meeting dinner. The whole time, they are able to monitor each others’ expressions live.
On a videoconference call, despite all the advanced features and gizmos to replicate the real world, we find people distracted and multitasking while attempting to follow a linear presentation, and making their comments known to everyone else. Of course, people can still send individual messages and there’s a reason why this happens outside company channels on WhatsApp or text message. But that requires a great deal of effort and concentration, and there is still no offline chemistry or rapport to read the room and use proper political skills.
Research does show that when the office moves from the physical to the virtual world, politics diminishes. There is less of a temptation to schmooze and seduce, to charm and negotiate, to persuade and influence. The typical skills that enable manipulative and influential people to achieve this—most notably charismatic introverts with a narcissistic and morally feeble disposition—are less effective in the digital world.
However, past research may have underestimated the impact of office politics online, because there was still an offline world to politick and political animals may have focused their wheeling and dealing efforts on the analog rather than the digital world.
There are five reasons to expect office politics will remain a thing even if we killed the office.
Humans are political by nature
We will always find a way to use our social skills and personal biases to advance our own interests. Groups and organizations are essential to help us attain certain personal goals, such as being paid to work, but they also constrain our own interests by demanding sacrifices. Teamwork is always about setting aside your own individual agendas so you can put collective interests first. It’s inherently human to optimize our self-interest in the process.
Online environments replicate their offline equivalent
The internet may have started as an alternative universe to the real world, but it mostly ended up replicating, if not amplifying it. People shop, date, and work online as they did offline. You can see political interests in emails just like you can in analog or spoken communication. So, while it’s tempting to see novel apps and virtual environments as unprecedented and strange, they are simply technologically enabled complements for what we always had, wanted, and needed. Facebook didn’t create the drive to snoop on your high school friends, just like Tinder didn’t invent impulsive and superficial hookups, Twitter didn’t create our appetite for fake news or confirmation bias, and Instagram isn’t to blame for our narcissistic drive to engage in oversharing.
Personality transfers intact from the offline to the online world
A natural consequence of this is that our personalities don’t change very much from the analog to the digital world. In fact, we are quite consistent and eager to express our identity and preferences with the same enthusiasm in virtual environments. (This explains why our personal data is of so much value to marketers.) The person we appear to be online is the same person who will buy relevant products or consume relevant media—online or offline. This means political individuals will find a way to be political even if you take away the office and they never have a physical encounter with a work colleague or boss ever again. You will only get rid of their politics if you completely get rid of them.
We won’t allow technology to keep us in check
Before the pandemic, employees were already producing vast amounts of data which could be analyzed by AI to infer their emotional states, productivity, engagement, and personality. While this use of technology may seem “creepy” it could actually be deployed for ethical and prosocial purposes. For instance, a sleazy boss may get away with harassing an employee offline, but their comments and actions would be detected and recorded in an online environment. Sexist or racist remarks may go undetected offline but not online. Even meta-data (mapping out the patterns and networks of communication) could be used to measure whether a culture is more or less inclusive and whether political forces are at play. Imagine two bosses plotting something and emails being exchanged very frequently at very late hours, for example. This is the reason we may never see AI leveraged the way it could. It’s not because employees can’t trust it, but because we may end up exposing unethical bosses.
Those who have power need politics to retain it
Some leaders lead because they should, They have a talent for leadership and are a valuable resource for the organization, combining competence with an admirable work ethic and integrity. But there are also those who lead despite having limited talent for leadership. They’re the ones who need politics to retain power and protect their own interests above those of the organization. Organizations characterized by polluted and rotten cultures allow selfish and Machiavellian leaders to thrive.
It’s not technology, but the culture of an organization, that will determine the degree of politics employees will need to endure, even when they are working at home.