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Remote work isn’t a solution that will work for everyone

Science Works 4min. Femke Trommels

Since the start of the Corona pandemic, working from home has been an unescapable reality for many workers. Now that the worst seems to be over, many organizations are faced with the question: what’s next? “The answer to that can’t be one size fits all”, says social psychologist Tony Evans. “During the pandemic, personality traits played an important role in how people performed and how they felt while working from home. And we learned that remote work isn’t a solution that works for everyone. Organizations should consider providing flexible hybrid working options, and allow employees to choose work environments that suit their personalities.”

When the pandemic started, we were all in it together. Thought leaders, organizations and journalists debated early on about working from home and whether this is good or bad in general. “Meanwhile, in my personal environment I saw people reacting to remote work in very different ways”, Tony says. “Some people thrived and some languished. This was due, in part, to different home environments. But personality traits also seemed to influence work performance and well-being.”

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From left to right: Tony Evans, Christina Meyers, Philippe van de Calseyde en Olga Stavrova

Pressure cooker

Together with fellow social psychologist Olga Stavrova and organizational behavior experts Christina Meyers (Human Resource Studies) and Phillipe van de Calseyde (Organization Behavior, Eindhoven University), Tony Evans executed a research project on the role of personality traits on work performance and well-being while working from home during the pandemic. “Remote working has always been there, but it was mainly executed by people who made a conscious choice to always work from home. Usually in specific industries, like tech. And usually remote workers were very happy about this choice. So logically, there were data missing from the discussion: what happens when people who are used to the traditional office environment are suddenly forced to work from home? To find out, we performed a cross departmental and ‘cross university’ collaboration, in a high pressure situation. That proved to be very valuable, having different perspectives on the team helped us to work quickly and gain a deeper insight into the role of personality traits in a fluid working situation.”

Data on the impact of remote working on individuals’ work performance and well-being was missing

Chaos doesn’t fit

Two personality traits predicted changes in work performance and well-being over time: extraversion and conscientiousness. Tony Evans: “It might not surprise you that very extraverted people don’t do well with staying home and missing social interaction. More surprising is the finding that people who score high on conscientiousness also experience difficulties. Their work performance and well-being decreased over time during our study. Usually people who score high on conscientiousness work well under a lot of circumstances. It’s a very desirable characteristic among employers: conscientious people are reliable, follow the rules and meet their deadlines. This preference for structure could also be part of the explanation; these people generally like clear rules and structure. The chaos that comes with a pandemic doesn’t fit into that.”

Working from home during the pandemic, seemed to be especially stressful for conscientiousness people

Listen and give options

Organizations are now making plans for the future. “Especially in the US and the UK, there are extremes on both sides of the spectrum. On the one hand, there are traditional companies that can’t wait to go back to the old ways and are already forcing employees to come back to the office. On the other end, there are small and agile companies, especially in tech, that want to stay totally remote. In the middle, there is a large group of employers that is struggling to make rules for hybrid working.

I can’t stress enough that individual differences need to be taken into consideration

“Based on our research, my advice would be to give options and listen to your employees. Hybrid working is not one size fits all. I can’t stress enough that individual differences play a large role in work performance and well-being. Also; preferences can - and will - change over time. Flexibility is key, and it is valuable to realize that traits, like extroversion and conscientiousness, are not always good or bad; different traits act differently in different situations.”

Follow-up

The results of this research came from a large international sample of remote workers from mainly the UK and the United States. “We followed these people over a period of four months. They started with a personality questionnaire and every month asked them about their recent work performance and wellbeing. Then we followed up every month to see if they got better, worse or stayed the same. From a research point of view, this is very important, because workers’ experiences changed very quickly during the early months of the pandemic. We also saw that different government measures, like lockdowns or vaccination strategies, might also have played an important role in how people felt about their work situations. From a research point of view, it was very interesting to monitor these people in different moments in time.”

‘Cross Cutting Theme’ research with societal relevance