The Trouble with Tech and Virtual Work

tech and virtual work

By Yvonne Milosevic

Have you ever considered what living through the pandemic might have been like if it had happened 20 years earlier? We shudder at the thought. Most of us have weathered the Covid era thanks to having decent internet speed and the digital tools needed to do our jobs. But while working from home provides plenty of perks, there is some trouble in paradise regarding tech and virtual work.

recent piece in MIT Sloan Management Review explores some surprising downsides to our tech-dominated work life. Collaboration tools—think Zoom, Microsoft Office, Slack, etc.—create four potential risks we need to watch out for, say researchers from the University of Reading’s Henley Business School.

According to lecturers Lebene Soga and Yemisi Bolade-Ogunfodun, “As this new gold rush for collaborative technologies increases, organizations risk developing a blind spot to the impact they have on relational dynamics between managers and employees.”

Problem: Risk of isolation.

Good as it is, video conferencing can’t quite replace the “watercooler moments” and social camaraderie of the Before Times.  Technology can widen the gap between managers and employees as opportunities for spontaneous face-to-face interactions disappear, the researchers explain.

“Leadership runs the risk of becoming tele-leadership if the isolation is not addressed,” Soga and Bolade-Ogunfodun warn.

Solution: Obvi, technology is excellent for accomplishing work-related goals. But in virtual work arrangements, we should also use it to stay connected as people. Supervisors can counter the effects of isolation by fostering a sense of belonging. Increasing one-on-one interactions with remote team members is an easy way to make a meaningful difference. For example, Bolade-Ogunfodun and Soga suggest managers and employees meet for weekly virtual lunches to maintain connections.

Problem: Risk of exclusion.

In today’s workplaces, employees range from tech natives to late adopters. Generational differences are inevitable. Some people feel instantly at ease with the many platforms we now rely on. Meanwhile, others are googling how-to videos to save face.

“Just as in-person work has the ability to create different social dynamics and structures (…) technology also has the ability to (re)shape ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’ — and in some cases, more easily,” Bolade-Ogunfodun and Soga have found.

tech and virtual work

Solution: If you suspect a team member’s lack of participation stems from not being tech-savvy, there’s a simple solution. “You could provide specific training opportunities to address knowledge gaps,” the researchers suggest. But be sure to do so “without making assumptions about adeptness because of an employee demographic.” Studies show some people over 40 do know a thing or two about technology.

Problem: Risk of surveillance.

The feeling that Big Brother is watching your every move, even when you’re working from home, is commonplace—and unsettling. After all, collaborative tech generates information about employees that management can later use in organizational decision-making, the researchers note.

You may (rightly) fear that managers judge your productivity and make unfair assumptions based on your data usage trail.

“Negative perceptions of managerial surveillance reduce employees’ sense of personal control,” Bolade-Ogunfodun and Soga note. Consequently, trust in the manager-employee relationship gets impacted.

tech and virtual work

Solution: When it comes to tech and virtual work, these researchers believe the first step to address surveillance fears is to lead with transparency. Tell employees what kind of data the technologies used generate, how the company uses that data, as well as the company’s policies about personal data.

Soga and Bolade-Ogunfodun think “managers should consider giving employees some administrator rights to the privacy settings of the collaborative technologies.” Finally, the researchers say companies would boost employee confidence if they anonymized the data generated.

Problem: Risk of self-censorship.

Zoom meetings are notorious for creating an environment that breeds self-censorship. The most extroverted or highest-ranking team members dominate virtual discussions, leaving quieter types literally muted in their wake.

“We found that collaborative technologies do not necessarily translate into a free flow of information,” say Soga and Bolade-Ogunfodun. Instead, they create conditions for self-censorship—even with so-called user-friendly technology.

By holding back, individuals in a technologized relationship may widen the manager-employee distance.

Solution: Leaders should regularly ask for feedback from participants. They can learn whether employees have run into any issues that prevent them from contributing during meetings. Be mindful of how you ask for feedback, though. Allow for private or anonymous ways to share thoughts to avoid putting employees on the spot.

The Future of Tech and Virtual Work

Experts cited by the Pew Research Center predicted that the new normal in 2025 will be far more tech-driven. In fact, “among the 86% who said the pandemic will bring about some kind of change, most said they expect that the evolution of digital life will continue to feature both positives and negatives.”

If so, it falls on everyone to stay vigilant about the potential risks of tech and virtual work going forward.