The psychology of remote working: will you thrive or survive in a remote world?

Prof. Binna Kandola OBE and Stuart Duff, Partners at Pearn Kandola LLP

We are now a few weeks into the dramatic and enforced changes to our work routines. The most significant change for many of us has been to adapt our home into a practical working environment. Bedrooms, broom cupboards and attics across the UK are now active places of work. Once upon a time, working from home was considered a treat and a ‘perk’ (equivalent in some eyes to a pay rise), allowed if you were lucky and had an open-minded manager.

While there has been a considerable focus on the practical elements on remote working – setting up an office, eating sensibly and getting to grips with video conferencing – there is another facet; specifically the question of why some people seem to thrive very quickly in a ‘remote’ role while others struggle.

This is actually a trend that we have investigated, observing remote teams, interviewing team leaders and asking remote workers to complete a ‘big five’ personality questionnaire. We then looked at the profiles of those who adapted well in comparison to those who struggled with remote working, and we found some striking differences.

Based on this research, we defined a number of broad personality types that could shape the way that we adapt to remote working. These are outlined below, along with likely strengths and points to consider, should these characteristics resonate with you and your style of working. It’s interesting to note though, that the motivation to work remotely is not necessarily a predictor of success. For instance, those individuals who actively sought remote roles were often more introverted but, as we discovered and highlight below, the same individuals were not always suited to the demands of remote working.

1. Stimulation Seekers

One of the most noticeable differences that we found was that extraverted and outgoing workers tended to adapt to remote working more quickly and effectively than their more reserved colleagues. This surprised us: we had previously anticipated that introversion may be a more suitable characteristic for remote working, particularly as so many of the individuals we interviewed talked about relishing the ‘solitude’ and space brought by remote working.

The reason, as we now understand, is that extraverts are more motivated to maintain contact with colleagues when working remotely and to reach out to socialise with others, either informally or more formally through regular meetings. This promotes communication and the exchange of valuable information between team members, something that we would all agree is essential to the effective running of any team. Those who tend to be more reserved are perhaps less likely to keep in touch with their team members or will wait until they are approached before sharing their thoughts and feelings.

2. Tough Survivors

In a number of interviews, remote workers talked about the need for personal resilience under pressure. In contrast to the busy office environment, where there are often chances to catch up and seek reassuring feedback from colleagues, remote workers can feel isolated and are less likely to experience regular support and reassurance. The unpredictable working environment also contributes to feelings of stress, as there can be unexpected events in the course of the working day and a lower sense of personal control.

3. Curious Explorers

Another theme in the interview data illustrated that, for remote workers, the ability to be open to new ideas and new ways of working is an important pre-cursor of success in the role. Openness and experimentation were seen as being much more important than in office-based roles, where significant changes are often introduced and managed on a wider scale.

The remote working environment is an unpredictable one: remote workers talked about needing to be open to new challenges and cope with the reduced levels of routine and security associated with centralised roles. They also need to be open to using new technology and to be creative in terms of solving problems. Indeed, many of our interviewees talked about the attraction of remote working because it allowed more frequent opportunities to ‘work differently’, to experiment with new technologies and to experience greater variety on a daily basis.

4. Independent Decision Makers

While the most adaptable remote workers may be energised by contact and communication with their colleagues, they also tend to maintain a strong independent mindset. One of the golden rules of effective remote working is to invest trust in colleagues and avoid micro-managing. The most effective remote workers that we met needed to feel that they were trusted to work independently and enjoyed the freedom and flexibility that comes with the territory.

We did find some tensions between the outgoing, sociable elements of extraversion and the attributes associated with independent decision making and action. One of the challenges of a very independent mindset is, not surprisingly, how to build co-operation with colleagues. We found that particularly independent individuals were good at reaching out for information and support, but without necessarily offering it in return or building mutual cooperation, as this conflicted with a drive to maintain independence.

5. Disciplined Achiever

The interviews and analysis revealed that conscientiousness and self-discipline are particularly important attributes to the success of remote workers. Again, this surprised us. When we embarked on the research, we predicted that being flexible, working around rules and taking expedient approaches would be a better fit with remote working. Instead, the opposite plays out: the ability to plan, to organise, to create and adhere to rules were all indicative of more effective remote working.

Working in a remote environment loses many of the structures, rituals and routines that exist within a central office. We probably undervalue the importance of someone asking if we want a tea or coffee, or whether we are breaking for lunch. We may also undervalue being able to see others leave their desk and head for a meeting. But these are all important and useful visual cues that many of us rely on to structure time and organise our work. Effective remote working relies on imposing structure, routine and discipline where it may not have previously been required. Segregating time, using diaries with greater detail or setting more reminders will come naturally to some, less naturally to others.

One last point on personal attributes: Linked to an independent desire to be in control, to organise themselves and to reach out and regularly communicate with colleagues, remote workers also need to be self-motivated and self-confident. In fact, the remote workers we interviewed reported that their second most significant challenge, after striking a balance between work and home life, is self-motivation.

This clearly underlines that more directive and controlling management styles are not only less successful with remote workers, but at times detrimental. And yet, in many of the workshops that we have delivered for our clients who are moving to remote working, the single biggest challenge for leaders is trusting team members and leaving them to deliver without interfering. These leaders recognise that their concerns are not rational or logical but are based on irrational judgements and biases, a topic that we will explore when we move on to the next article in the series.

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