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

There has been a considerable focus on the practical elements on remote working recently, from setting up an office to getting to grips with video conferencing. However, there has been a growing question as to why some people seem to thrive very quickly in a 'remote' role while others struggle.

Through observing remote teams, interviewing team leaders and asking remote workers to complete a 'big five' personality questionnaire we have investigated this trend. Then, looking at the profiles of those who adapted well in comparison to those who struggled with remote working, we found some striking differences.

In the descriptions below we outline how some of the broad personality types we uncovered in our research could shape the way that we adapt to remote working, along with likely strengths and points for consideration.

Overall though, it’s interesting to note 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, the same individuals were not always suited to the demands of remote working.

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.

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 micromanaging.

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 cooperation 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.

Disciplined achiever

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, organise, 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 tea or coffee, or whether we are breaking for lunch. But these are useful visual cues that many of us rely on to structure time and organise our work.

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.

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 remote working workshops that we have delivered for our clients, the single biggest challenge for leaders is trusting team members and leaving them to deliver without interfering.

Binna Kandola and Stuart Duff are partners at Pearn Kandola