Personality and the remote workforce

In a future world, where a larger percentage of the workforce is remote, it will be essential for organisations to understand the qualities of effective remote workers and leaders, says Ryne A Sherman

The COVID-19 crisis is causing economic disruption. Markets are in free fall, unemployment is skyrocketing, and many businesses have ceased operations. In less catastrophic instances, companies have cancelled travel and sent employees home for extended remote work. The downsides to these disruptions are obvious. Less obvious however, is that disruptions often create new opportunities. For example, a few businesses are booming during the crisis and expanding their workforces. But the COVID-19 crisis provides an even broader opportunity for companies to prepare for the future of work. For years now, all signs have indicated that the future of work will become increasingly remote. The sudden shift to remote work has, inadvertently, prepared many companies for this impending future. In a future (or present) that is dominated by remote labour, two critical questions arise: (1) who is best suited for remote work and (2) who is suited to lead remote teams? This article draws on decades of research in personality science to answer these two questions.

Personality and work

Personality concerns the ways in which people think, act, and feel differently from each other. More than 100 years of empirical, scientific research in personality has established three unquestionable facts: (1) People are psychologically different from each other, (2) These differences can be reliably measured using any of several techniques, and (3) The measurement of these differences predicts a huge host of outcomes, including how long people live, whether they marry, how long they stay married, and how successful they are in their careers. Chief among these outcomes that is predicted by personality is workplace performance. Further, the precise links between personality and workplace performance vary as a function of job. Lastly, using personality assessments to make personnel decisions can have dramatic effects on employee engagement, sales performance, and workplace safety, saving millions of dollars. However, virtually all research on personality and workplace performance has either been in traditional work environments (e.g., the job site, the office) or, at the very least, has not looked at what makes remote work different. Here, I draw on insights from the science of personality and the psychological differences between traditional vs. remote work to identify critical personality differences that make for excellent remote employees and bosses.

Who is best suited for remote work?

The first thing to recognise about remote work is that it is still work. Too often we get caught up in the differences between traditional vs. remote work and forget that the core characteristics of good employees in a traditional job are still the core characteristics of good employees in remote jobs. For example, a marketing company would care just as much about creativity, aesthetic taste, and technical skills for its designers whether they work remotely or in the office. Still, there are some key differences to remote work that might make some personalities better suited for it than others.

The first, and most obvious, is the lack of social contact. Extraverts thrive on socialising and become energised when they work around others. Introverts find working around others to be mentally and psychologically draining. As a result, introverts are better suited for remote work. A second key difference for remote work is the lack of individual oversight. When working in an office, especially an open office that is popular among modern tech companies, it is easy to hold people accountable for doing their work; just look around the building. Who is there? Who always seems to be socialising or getting another cup of coffee? When people are working remotely, it is harder to tell how much time people are spending working and it is harder to hold people accountable. As a result, employees who are moralistic and sticklers for the rules are best suited for remote work. These people hold themselves personally accountable for their work and feel a tremendous amount of guilt when they are not working, making them ideal remote employees.  

Leading remote teams

When it comes to leadership, it is important to know that the core characteristics of effective leaders have not changed since the days of Plato. The most effective leaders (1) Have integrity—earning the trust of their subordinates, (2) Are competent at the task they are leading—instilling confidence in the team that they know what they are doing, (3) Make good decisions in a timely fashion—ensuring that reasonable decisions get made and action gets taken, (4) Set a vision for the future—earning buy-in from the team to work together for the greater good, (5) Compete for the group—pushing the group to perform to it’s maximum ability, and (6) Are personally humble—giving credit to the group for success and taking blame for its failures. These characteristics of leadership effectiveness are critical whether one is leading a football team, a modern corporation, or a remote workforce. But, once again, there are subtle differences in remote work and certain personality characteristics can make a leader effective at leading a remote workforce.

Remote work is inherently isolating. As previously mentioned, introverts will be quite happy in this sort of environment, but it is unlikely that you will be leading an entire team of introverts. Your extraverts will struggle with the lack of social connection. Thus, a leader of remote workers needs to take a balanced approach to social connectedness. The leader may need to spend more time connecting with and getting extraverted workers together. However, the leader must be careful not to overdo it, and risk alienating the introverts or spending too much time socialising. In other words, the most effective leaders of remote workers will need to be versatile in their approach.

Remote work is also isolating for the team leader. In traditional workplaces, the team leader might regularly have conversations with other business leaders about strategy and long-term corporate planning. Likewise, in traditional workplaces, the team leader can see how things are operating and moving on a daily basis. However, in remote situations, it is harder for a leader to know about both the big picture and how things are operating on the ground floor. In this regard, the most effective remote team leaders are skilled at staying connected to the larger organisation. They do not allow themselves – and thus their teams – to become isolated and independent wings of the company. They make a concerted effort to connect with leaders on other teams and to have regular check-ins with their own team to ensure that everyone is pulling in the same direction.

Conclusion

In a future world, where a larger percentage of the workforce is remote, it will be essential for organisations to understand the qualities of effective remote workers and leaders. The science of personality tells us that while many of the critical characteristics of high-performing workers and managers will remain unchanged, subtle differences in remote work will call for subtle differences in personality characteristics. Effective remote employees will need more personal discipline than traditional employees, while effective leaders of remote teams will need to build and maintain connections to both the business leaders and their individual employees.

Ryne A Sherman is Chief Science Officer at Hogan Assessments

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