Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 20, Issue 47;   November 18, 2020:

Newly Virtual Politics: Meetings


Pandemic or not, workplace politics marches on. But with the pandemic and the prevalence of formerly co-located teams becoming more virtual, workplace politics takes a new form, especially clearly so in meetings.
The screen image of a virtual meeting

The screen image of a virtual meeting. The image of each person shows head and shoulders only. There is no conference table around which to establish relative status. Photo by Master Sgt. Michael Crane, 139th Airlift Wing, U.S. Air Force.

In the early days of the Coronavirus pandemic, when nearly universal work-from-home for knowledge workers was still fairly new, you might have noticed a spate of articles in the business press about workplace politics in virtual teams and virtual organizations. With so many people now working remotely, virtual politics was of interest because so many teams or groups now looked more like virtual teams or groups.

Starting in the spring or early summer of 2020, work-from-home brought about dramatic changes. Suddenly working from home meant working solo, unless we were attending a meeting or on the phone. Suddenly there were no more (mostly) face-to-face team meetings, with one or two people phoning in. Team meetings now took place over phone or Zoom or MS Teams or something else. Suddenly there were no more clusters of people in conference rooms at different sites watching the same video feed. Now everyone from every site was logged in to the same digitally mediated meeting. Suddenly there were no more daily stand-up meetings. Now the "daily stand-up" was still daily, but everyone was actually sitting down at home. Suddenly there was no more "dropping in" on a colleague on your way back from the coffee station. Now the "dropping in" was a text message that might or might not have developed into a phone call.

Oh, and now there was the occasional barking dog or crying baby.

These changes, though superficial, have important implications for how we do our work. Consider the effects of these changes on the politics of our teams or groups.

It's helpful to begin by defining politics. There are dozens of definitions, maybe more. Here's mine:

Workplace politics is what happens when we contend with each other for control or dominance, or when we work together to solve specific problems.

In addition Because of the pandemic, meetings
are virtual. They no longer
require conference rooms.
to backstabbing, rumormongering, and other dirty tricks, this definition includes constructive, collaborative activity. Positive, constructive politics has been a critical component of success in organizations for a very long time, despite the widespread perception of politics as an evil to be banished from organizational life. Fortunately, perceptions are changing. [Hill 2017]

With that in mind, there is much we can say about virtual politics at the present moment.

Meetings no longer require conference rooms
Back when a good number of the people attending a meeting were attending in person, face-to-face, meetings required conference rooms. And in organizations in which conference rooms were in short supply, having a regular weekly or daily meeting at the same time every week or day was one way of ensuring that the team had a conference room it liked. Teams could reserve their favorite conference rooms and time slots indefinitely into the future. This led to a tendency to have meetings that weren't actually necessary or were longer than they needed to be.
Newly virtual teams that are accustomed to meeting every week or day sometimes continue this practice. But because they're meeting virtually now, they can consider reducing the frequency or length of their meetings, without risking loss of access to a conference room. Keeping their meetings at a regular time is still advisable, though. Regularity limits development of schedule conflicts.
Where you sit around the conference table no longer matters
Back when a good number of the people attending a meeting were attending in person, face-to-face, choice of seat around the table could affect one's ability to contribute to the meeting. [Brenner 2004]
In virtual meetings, where everyone is connected to the meeting by telephone or video, there is no table. Seating position around that non-existent table is no longer a relevant concept. But whether you're connected by telephone or video, where you sit in the real world does matter. For audio, you want a quiet space with limited wind. For video, you want proper lighting and a business-like setting. Golf courses, bars, bedrooms, and beaches are unwise choices. [Brenner 2020]
The background of your video image matters
Let's set aside virtual backgrounds right away, because they're so easily detected that they deceive hardly anyone. Your choice of background can be a political statement that can affect how others assess your credibility. This is an example of a cognitive bias known as the halo effect. [Thorndike 1920] [Brenner 2012] When one or more attributes of a person (or, presumably, any entity) are regarded as positive or attractive, the halo effect causes us to tend to assess other attributes of that person (or entity) more favorably than we otherwise would.
For example, suppose you're choosing where to sit for an upcoming videoconference. If you have a home with an ocean or lake view, choosing to sit so as to show the waves gently breaking on "your" beach in the beautiful afternoon sun is one way to demonstrate your wealth and power. The halo effect then might cause observers to tend to assess your contributions to the meeting as more valuable than they otherwise would. If your wealth and power aren't relevant to the substance of your contributions to the meeting, then the credibility gained by demonstrating your wealth and power can result in undue influence. That undue influence can lead the meeting to incorrect conclusions. A well-appointed room, or an impressive bookshelf, or elegant artwork can have similar effects.
As a meeting participant, you're an observer of the video backgrounds others have selected. When you notice a particularly appealing background, be alert. Remember the halo effect.

These are just three ways the politics of virtual meetings differ from the politics of face-to-face meetings. Next time I'll explore differences that are more specific to the participants of the meeting.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Newly Virtual Politics: Choices  Next Issue

Leading Virtual Meetings for Real ResultsAre your virtual meetings plagued by inattentiveness, interruptions, absenteeism, and a seemingly endless need to repeat what somebody just said? Do you have trouble finding a time when everyone can meet? Do people seem disengaged and apathetic? Or do you have violent clashes and a plague of virtual bullying? Read Leading Virtual Meetings for Real Results to learn how to make virtual meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot shorter. Order Now!


[Hill 2017]
Sarah Hill. "Positive vs. Negative Politics and Behavioral Intentions: An Experimental Examination" (2017). Available here. Retrieved November 1, 2020. Back
[Brenner 2004]
Richard Brenner. "Take Any Seat: I," Point Lookout blog, May 26, 2004 Available here. Back
[Brenner 2020]
Richard Brenner. "Virtual Meetings: Then and Now," Point Lookout blog, April 1, 2020 Available here. Back
[Thorndike 1920]
E.L. Thorndike. "A constant error in psychological ratings," Journal of Applied Psychology, 4:1, 25-29 (1920). doi:10.1037/h0071663 Back
[Brenner 2012]
Richard Brenner. "The Halo Effect," Point Lookout blog, March 21, 2012 Available here. Back

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