How individual differences affect remote employees
✍️ by Dasha Antsipava on 🗓 2021-02-18
Here at Atium, we place much value on educating ourselves to make sure that the work that we do is informed by the most up-to-date scientific findings and best practices, and be at the forefront of knowledge in our industry. So we have decided to consult professional and empirical research to bring you the most important and up-to-date knowledge in organizational research on the topic of team dynamics in remote settings.
Why do we even need to look at individual differences?
Individual differences affect how individual employees are able to deal with various types of challenges arising in their work. Individual differences affect all types of work arrangements - from office-based to virtual, from solitary to team-based. And since these types of work differ so much from each other - it is only natural that some individual characteristics may be better suited to some types of work better than others.
Much effort has been invested into research looking into the type of individual difference characteristics are the most prone to succeed and flourish in remote teams. But why are individual characteristics so important for work anyway?
Academic research has suggested that a useful way to look at what makes successful teams — office-based and virtual — is to look at it through a lens of the ‘Input-Process-Output’ framework. This framework asserts that some input factors influence virtual team processes and emergent states, which in turn affect team outcomes. The input, emergent states, and outcomes are themselves influenced by various characteristics of the team, such as how virtual the team is, how long they have been working together, how interdependent the project tasks are, etc.
The input factors are determined by the decisions that are made about the team composition and how the team is going to function. These then affect team processes and emergent states, which characterise how the team works together to achieve their goals. Finally, they also affect team outcomes - i.e. individual and team levels of performance, effectiveness, commitment to the project and team, satisfaction with how the job was done.
Each level of the framework is important for explaining how a virtual team functions. It is beyond the scope of this post to discuss each part of the framework. But individual differences affect a crucial part of the input factors - the team composition. How virtual team members approach their work, get things, done and deal with challenges all have an impact on the overall functioning of the team and the final achievement of the team goals.
Which individual differences affect how we work remotely?
Much research has framed this question differently: Who is more likely to succeed in remote teams? But this year we have been thrust into the world of remote work, whether willingly or unwillingly, and whether we like it or not - we have to learn to adapt to this new reality. While some individual characteristics that make a person more suitable for remote work are inherent (although this is now being challenged - more on this below), luckily other characteristics can be cultivated and practiced to make remote work easier for those who are currently struggling.
One of the biggest, and most researched, factors which affect how happy and successul we are working remotely is our personality. Now I can guess what you are all thinking: “Well duh, extraverts must dislike working from home because they are outgoing and love to be around people, while introverts prefer working from home because they are more shy. It’s a no-brainer!” But it’s actually a little bit more complicated than that.
Let’s begin by looking at the concept of personality itself. Personality has been defined as “a stable pattern of psychological processes, characteristics, and tendencies arising from motives, feelings, and cognitions which can be used to determine individual commonalities and differences in thoughts, feelings and actions.” There are different ways in which we can look at personality - as traits and as cognitive styles.
While this might sound a bit vague, you are probably already familiar with the two most popular conceptualisations of these. Personality traits are most often characterised from the perspective of the ‘Big Five’ personality dimensions; while cognitive styles refer to the Myers-Briggs Type-Indicator (MBTI), or the 16 personalities.
The Big Five personality dimensions
Personality traits can be thought of as personal temperament characteristics, which are inherent in a person and are relatively difficult to change. The Big Five consist of the following dimensions: Extraversion, Neuroticism, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Openness. Each person ranks for each dimension along a continuum between low and high.
Andy Luse, Associate Professor at the Spears School of Business in Oklahoma, and his colleagues conducted a study with 153 business students in which they tested how personality traits and cognitive styles affect preferences for working in virtual teams. Their results show that personality traits are able to predict whether people prefer working in virtual or face-to-face teams.
Unlike the common assumption that extraversion is the main driving factor behind this, Luse found that it is actually the ‘openness to new experiences’ dimension that has the strongest effect on the preference of working in a virtual rather than a face-to-face team. This dimension “represents curiosity and willingness to explore new ideas with open individuals tending to devise novel ideas, hold unconventional values, and question authority.” Luse and his colleagues suggest that the reason why people prone to openness prefer to work in virtual teams is because they may see it as an opportunity to try out new ideas in a nontraditional group environment, leading to faster adoption of new technology in remote teams, therefore making virtual work easier.
MBTI Cognitive Styles
Cognitive styles also make up an individual’s personality, but unlike personality traits, they focus more on how a person understands and processes information. The MBTI consists of four pairs which, when combined, produce 16 different types of personalities - or in this case cognitive styles. The four dimensions are: extraversion/introversion, sensing/intuition, thinking/feeling, judging/perception. Like the Big Five personality traits, each person ranks somewhere along one of the four dimension, but unlike the Big Five, instead of ranking on a continuum from low to high, they rank for each indicator of a dimension pair on opposite ends of the continuum. For example, the continuum from introversion to extraversion.
In that same study, Luse and his colleagues also looked at how cognitive styles affect preferences for virtual work. They found that cognitive styles can be used to predict whether a person prefers to work in a virtual team or alone (but cannot predict whether they prefer to work in a face-to-face team). They found that the judging/perceiving dimension affected preference for virtual work most, followed by the thinking/feeling dimension and the extraversion/introversion dimension.
Luse suggests that people who judge more, may prefer virtual team environments because they result in shorter team meetings with quicker results. It also makes sense that extraverts prefer virtual team environments over working alone, because they enjoy interacting with people — and interacting with a virtual team is better than not interacting with anyone at all.
So personality traits and cognitive styles clearly play a big role in determining who is more likely to prefer working in a virtual team. Those who are open to trying new things are more likely to prefer virtual over face-to-face teams, while those who like to get things done quickly and efficiently, and enjoy daily social interaction prefer virtual teams to working alone. But does that mean that those who lack these personality traits and cognitive styles cannot thrive in remote work environments?
The changing nature of personalities
The simple answer is, well, no. While generally it is thought that personality traits are inherent and unlikely to change throughout our life time, recent research indicates otherwise.
William Swart and Judy Siguaw from East Carolina University tested whether psychometric characteristics of individuals could change after working intensely in virtual teams for a short amount of time. Swart and Siguaw measured psychometric characteristics of 58 students before and after completing an online course where they had to closely collaborate with their virtual team for a period of five weeks.
They discovered that psychometric characteristics, such as personality, emotional intelligence and perceived locus of control differed for many participants between the start and the end of the course. They found that extraversion and openness to experience scores increased, while scores for altruism decreased. They suggest that extraversion and openness increased as a result of virtual team work forcing individuals “to come out of their shell”. On the other hand, the decrease in altruism could be explained by a decrease in trust that participants experienced when they were on a team with a member who was not pulling their weight in the project. As a result, participants were less willing to help those who were free-riding on the work of other team members.
They also found that the scores changed for participants who ranked at the extremes of various psychometric measures (very low or very high) at the beginning of the course, by more closely resembling the scores of their team mates. Swart and Siguaw explain: “psychometrics are malleable and … short-term, intense, virtual collaboration forces individual team members to adapt their psychometrics to seek a balance that is appropriate to the demands of the team.”
So research shows that personality does play a role in influencing who fares better in remote work. But it also shows that human are susceptible to adapting to situations that they find themselves in.
What else affects how well we work in remote teams?
While personality is obviously quite a big factor in determining how well people adapt to remote work - it is not the only factor. Jennifer Dowling, Organizational Psychologist and Director at Train Remote, suggests three other key individual differences which affect preference for remote work.
The concept of energy is actually really closely related to the personality trait extraversion/introversion. Dowling reminds us that extraversion and introversion is not about how outgoing or shy a person is, but it is about where a person gets their energy from or how they recharge.
Typically, extraverts get their energy from external environments such as being outside, doing some exercise but also from communicating with other people. Introverts, on the other hand, recharge by spending time alone and engaging in reflection.
Both extraverts and introverts can experience problems when working remotely - but in different ways. For example, extraverts may struggle with a lack of energy as a result of not being in an office, surrounded by people and constantly engaging in social interaction. That is why it is so important for them to build in social moments into their working days when working remotely. Dowling recommends using apps which helps us engage with others to keep the energy levels maintained. This can be as easy as scheduling a 5 minute social activity at the beginning of each meeting using Atium’s Slack integration.
Introverts may also struggle but from the opposite problem - too much online communication. The nature of remote work is such that it requires people to over-communicate in order to maintain trust in virtual teams. Constantly being online and on video can be draining for introverts.
“Home self and work self are being asked to coexist in the same space.”
At the same time, many of us now have been thrown into remote work without a life jacket - or more precisely without an adequate working space - which allows us to delineate where work ends and begins. Dowling says that our “home self and work self are being asked to coexist in the same space.” This is also challenging for extraverts but especially so for introverts - and even more difficult for those who have kids as the boundary between employee and mum/dad can easily become blurred. So it is crucial to create those boundaries and communicate them not only to our family - but also to our colleagues.
To deal with these challenges, Dowling recommends that we begin by understanding what gives us energy (e.g. talking to a friend or being alone) and then making an effort to make sure we build this into our day.
The thing about time is that people differ in how well they are able to manage it. The challenge of managing time has three dimensions.
Temporal awareness can be understood by how well we are able to estimate how long things will take to complete.
Some people are very good at this and have high temporal awareness. Others with low temporal awareness tend to make long lists of tasks to accomplish and try to pack a lot of activities into their day. When they are unable to complete all the tasks, they get frustrated.
Obviously, this is counterproductive. The best way to deal with this is to learn temporal awareness. This can be done by:
- Timing yourself to see how long it takes to complete certain tasks
- Creating a time plan and asking someone with high temporal awareness to look over it and give you feedback on how manageable they think it is
- Using specifically designed apps to help with learning temporal awareness skills
Dowling says that different people have different time management preferences. Some people like to have a clear plan and a structure to follow in completing tasks. Others, on the other hand, prefer to be more fluid and go with the flow, adapting to the situational context as it changes. Some prefer to have things done in advance, others work better under time pressures.
This can undoubtedly cause problems when working remotely and as part of a team. The best way to overcome the challenge of different time management preferences is to communicate to your team members how you like to work. To make it more playful, the Atium app provides you with a template to create your own personal User Manual to share with your colleagues.
But you also have to be considerate that your time management preferences may be different to your colleagues’. And you have to be flexible and willing to adapt to the needs of others, as they also have to adapt to your needs too.
Time monitoring is all about self-leadership and self-monitoring, and is closely related to procrastination. After we have figured out how long our tasks will take to do and have devised a time management plan (or no plan) of how we are going to do it, the concept of time monitoring is about how well we can keep ourselves on track to achieving what we set out to achieve.
Again, some people are better at staying on track and not getting distracted than others. But self-leadership can also be trained. We can use techniques such as giving ourselves rewards, habit stacking, or the Pomodoro method.
But remember! There are costs to learning new skills in the form of energy - when we are learning and developing, it can be extremely energy draining. So make sure that when you are training these skills that you are also taking the time to renergize using whatever method works best for you.
The final individual difference affecting remote employees that we are going to discuss is stress.
Stress is individual in terms of:
- how it manifests for you as the person experiencing the stress,
- how your stress manifests to others (i.e. when they experience you when you are stressed), and
- how you manage stress.
Understanding these things will help you to better manage stressful situations.
Stress can be particularly difficult to manage in remote work. When at the office, colleagues are more easily able to see when you are stressed because there are simply more social cues in a face-to-face setting. In a remote setting, however, many of these social cues are absent. At the same time, people don’t like to discuss their feelings. So when we are stressed and send a snappy email or come across short-tempered in a meeting - this may seem to our colleagues as coming out of the blue. If we are not careful, this could seriously affect our relationships with out colleagues. So it is important to build self-awareness about how stress affects us in order to avoid damaging workplace relationships and passing the stress onto others.
“We need to foster and build empathy for other people, assume good intent, and give people the benefit of the doubt.”
It is also important to remember that we might not know the full story of what’s going on the other side of the screen. So when we are receiving communication from other people, Dowling says that it is also important “to foster and build empathy our empathy for other people, assume good intent, and give people benefit of the doubt.”
Managing stress is extremely important. When we are stressed, our body can go into fight or flight mode and begin overproducing cortisol. When this happens, we may become overly focused on the threat which can result in innumerable hours spent worrying and ruminating over the thing that are stressing us out. Over time this can lead to chronic stress, which reduces production of the happy and relationship-building hormone, oxytocin, in our body. In the end this can lead to damaging relationships in the workplace or otherwise, since less oxytocin and more cortisol results in us being more irritable and mistrustful of other people.
Dowling suggests that to manage stress, we need to do the following:
- Recognise when we are stressed
- Figure out what works for us in managing stress, and have it ready when stress is on the horizon
- Have empathy for ourselves and other people