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        Is remote working inducing ‘prudent’ paranoia?

        Is remote working inducing ‘prudent’ paranoia?

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          With the UK’s workforce still restricted to virtual communication only, are some of us feeling anxious about our interactions with colleagues?

          It is estimated that around half of the UK’s workforce are currently working from home, all contact with our co-workers restricted to video conferencing in one form or another. We’ve been doing this for almost a year now but that doesn’t mean that our emotional office dynamics have yet caught up with our video conferencing reality and there are those for whom a whole new spectrum of anxieties have arisen.

          The finer nuances picked up during face-to-face conversations are impossible to detect through a screen, while subtle facial expressions and body language signals are entirely lost.

          Professor of organisational behaviour at Stanford Graduate School of Business, Roderick M. Kramer has studied paranoia at work. Past research suggests that remote working may exacerbate uncertainty about one’s status within an organisation which may lead to over-thinking situation outcomes and ruminating on imagined scenarios.

          Working remotely may 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.

          The professor recognises that organisational paranoia isn’t necessarily irrational, indeed, there is even a term for this type of sensible hypervigilance; prudent paranoia. “Part of paranoia is about self-presentational issues,” Mr. Kramer said.

          And, it seems our paranoia might be justified and that perhaps we aren’t just imagining we are being judged for our appearance, and that of our homes, on video conferencing calls.

          A Twitter account set up in the USA in April 2020 and aptly called Room Rater, actually rates the backgrounds in people’s video chats. Admittedly, it principally features people interviewed on American TV, and usually tags in the subject. To date this account has over 382,000 followers.

          Typical tweets from this account are:

          “Great wall color. Curious about hat. Flowers. Important story. 9/10.”

          “Love the art. The clock is Dali-like. Add plants. 7/10.”

          “Nice clock. Raise camera height. Then we can work on lighting. 4/10.”

          It’s only natural for us to assume that our co-workers are making the same sorts of judgement. Certainly it’s unnerving on a Zoom call when the eyes of the person we are talking to are darting around looking at what’s behind you. Have they spotted your ironing board that you definitely meant to put away before the call? Why didn’t you remember to remove the underwear drying on the radiator behind you?

          A very well-known UK politician had his backdrop rated thus; “Maps are art, but the room is otherwise dreary. We are investigating whether the broom is a barricade or used to sweep things under the rug. 4/10.”

          Scrutiny of said Twitter account reveals that people whose backdrops have been ‘room rated’ make various adjustments afterwards in order to improve their scores.

          If it wasn’t worrying enough that the literature on your backdrop bookshelf might be deemed intellectually deficient, or that background evidence suggests that your housekeeping skills could do with improvement, meanwhile, there are those of us working at home with the undeniable pressure that an unpredictable toddler could crash an otherwise sedate company quarterly catch-up call at any given moment.

          Fleeting moments such as this could have us obsessing for days after, praying that the MD didn’t see the chaos unfolding behind you, being eternally gratefully that at least you were on mute at the time, so the interruption was at least just visual and not accompanied by the high-pitched screeching you were experiencing.

          Video conferencing has of course been a lifeline to business, not to mention our sanity, over the past year but on the flipside, the anxiety-inducing scrutiny of our home set-ups, together with the absence of in-person affirmation is bound to have brought about a degree of paranoia in even the most confident of us.


          Images courtesy of Shutterstock & Press Association

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