Enabled by shifts in industry and facilitated by advancing technologies, remote working has become an increasingly popular option. Yet employment as a remote worker brings its own challenges.
The Rise and (Sudden) Rise of Remote Working
The number of people working from home has gradually increased in recent years. In 2019, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that over 5% of UK employees worked mainly from home, and over 12% reported working from home at some point during the week leading up to the ONS survey.
Unsurprisingly, this number has skyrocketed in recent months.
A recent survey commissioned by Ciena found that 69% of British adults are now working from home at least some of the time. Whilst this figure is likely to decline as restrictions ease, 68% of those surveyed believed their employment would involve some degree of remote working for the foreseeable future.
These developments have enforced a new normal on many workers, and many organisations are playing catchup.
The Individual Impact of Remote Working
Working from home can have a range of potential advantages. As well as minimising the spread of Covid-19, research by Ter Hoeven and Van Zoonen (2015) indicates it can also improve work/life balance, increase job autonomy and improve employee well-being.
But it’s not all good news. Research has also identified potential disadvantages of working from home. A study by Grant et al. (2013) highlighted the danger that remote workers could become ‘invisible workers’ who were at risk of experiencing reduced well-being, diminished job effectiveness and a poorer work-life balance.
On face value, these findings appear contradictory. Yet the second study also identified mediating factors appearing to determine the success (or failure) of the remote-working arrangements. These included management style, employee-employer interaction, and individual differences.
This seems like a positive finding. The efforts and actions of management can play a sizable role in whether remote working practices succeed. Yet given the speed in adopting remote working, the risks of mis-managing remote workers have risen significantly.
The research also indicates that whilst overarching company-wide strategies can improve the situation of remote workers, failure to tailor approaches to individual members of staff will serve to hinder the effectiveness of management strategies.
It seems that the top priority of management should therefore be to identify and enact the insights and techniques that maximise the advantages and minimise the disadvantages resulting from remote working practices. Some of these will be consistent, but others will need to address the needs of the individual staff.
This begs the question: How can psychological science help?
The Role of Personality in Supporting Remote Workers
To answer this question, PCL have collaborated with Shaun Biggs from the University of West England. Driven by a long-standing interest in the impact remote working has on individuals, Shaun chose to apply personality psychology to the issues of professional isolation and employee engagement.
These are important concepts in the field of remote worker research. Professional isolation can result from feelings of exclusion and loneliness. Consequences range from the development of mental health issues through to reduced job performance. Unsurprisingly, remote workers are particularly at risk.
Employee engagement has also been a hot topic of research. The outcomes of greater engagement include increased organisational commitment and decreased turnover intentions in staff. Remote workers are prone to reduced levels of engagement due to the circumstances of their working practices.
Shaun’s research encompassed these two variables, in addition to personality data derived from PCL’s Profile:Match2 assessment. The research included 177 participants, over three-quarters of whom reported some level of remote working in their average working week. Two-thirds of the sample’s remote workers stated they had been working from home for three months or less, suggesting the majority were affected by changes wrought by COVID-19.
The analysis found that, when combined, personality factors accounted for a sizable portion of variance in perceptions of professional isolation and employee engagement.
Further analysis found a strong relationship between professional isolation and the personality factor of ‘emotional stability’. High scorers on P:M2’s two emotional stability scales are more likely to be self-confident, optimistic and upbeat (‘Self-esteem’) and even-tempered, unemotional and calm (‘Composure’). Findings indicated employees scoring lower on these scales were more likely to report feeling worried, anxious and isolated in their capacity as remote workers.
Additional analysis considered the relationship between employee engagement and the personality factor of ‘Extraversion’. High scorers on P:M2’s two extraversion scales are more likely to demonstrate a strong desire for the company of others (‘Sociability’) and display achievement-orientated competitive and energetic behaviour (‘Assertiveness’). Analysis indicated that more extraverted employees would be more prone to experiencing the negative consequences of low engagement resulting from a diminished capacity to interact with colleagues.
These findings evidence the role that individual differences play in staff reaction to remote working.
This is essential for management to recognise. One size fits all approaches may help but can only go so far. Remote worker support strategies will be considerably enhanced when they recognise and incorporate the individual differences of the staff they serve. This will enable resulting interventions to be targeted, thereby maximining their effectiveness.
Would you like to take the Profile:Match2 assessment and receive a complimentary version of the Feedback Report?
With PCL’s Remote Worker Support Initiative you can do just that by following the link below.