What makes a high-potential remote worker?

Remote workers still need traditional HR processes such as performance management to be at their most effective and engaged


Remote workers once accounted for a tiny minority of employees, but some estimates now suggest that 2020 will see up to 50% of the workforce being based remotely. Flexible working schedules are becoming more popular and technology makes it easier to work from any location and at any time.

As remote and flexible working increases employers need to better understand how to select, manage and develop employees operating in a remote working environment. This research shows what traits to look for when identifying high-potential remote workers and how to performance manage this group.

What’s new

As remote and flexible working grows HR needs to ensure these workers are effectively managed and included in the talent development pipeline as well as in performance management.

All of the key HR activities of spotting, managing and developing people at work will need to be adapted to suit the remote working population as the new norm.

This means HR will need to actively manage remote workers as part of the talent pipeline and consider that:

1. Remote workers need the right support from HR and managers to be effective in their roles. Think of how you can adapt the traditional HR activities of designing hiring processes, onboarding activities, mentoring programmes and development opportunities for those working remotely.

2. Remote workers often find the transition to remote working comes with much less support and communication than they get in a traditional office environment. But there are specific traits that predict the success and performance of remote workers, and we suggest remote workers should be selected based on these traits.

3. Remote working has the potential to boost employee engagement, and consequently boost productivity and performance when it is managed effectively. Our research shows that even if people are working remotely, the majority still value direct face-to-face communication when talking about workplace performance.

We recently conducted a study of remote workers focusing on personality traits, performance management and productivity. The research involved an international sample of remote workers, primarily employed in the UK, Republic of Ireland and Canada, but living and working remotely in many different countries.

Key findings

Bringing HR processes to remote working

Previous research has demonstrated that remote workers tend to be more productive and have higher levels of engagement. Our research also found that an increase in hours worked remotely was related to higher job satisfaction.

However, this should not be taken for granted. To be productive and engaged remote workers need to benefit from traditional HR processes, support from management and from colleagues. When employees work remotely it is even more important for HR to ensure there is an effective performance management system in place.

To be most effective remote workers need clarity around expected outcomes, fairness and objectivity in how their performance is evaluated. It is actually even more important to clarify performance objectives, manage communication schedules and ensure performance feedback is given regularly and effectively to this type of worker.

When performance management is done well it provides remote workers with the clarity they need to work effectively combined with the autonomy to manage their own schedules and targets. This in turn leads workers to be more productive and engaged.

That is why it is important to consider all of the components needed to enable remote workers to succeed.

Personality traits

Personality traits are one of the best predictors of workplace performance. And when we can define the workplace environment and required responsibilities we can then identify the suitable personality traits.

While remote workers may have few commonalities in terms of sector, working environment, location or scheduling there is one key component of the remote working environment. Remote workers must be self-motivated and able to manage their own schedule and workload.

Many people find they can work effectively outside of an office environment, but that does not mean remote work is for everyone.

Some people like the companionship and camaraderie they get from working in close proximity to their team. Many people find they are more motivated when they have people and other external motivators encouraging them to get the work done.

Our research found three key traits related to the success of remote workers:

1. Conscientiousness

Remote workers have significantly higher conscientiousness than the general population. Conscientiousness describes workers’ motivation, discipline and capacity for long-term planning.

Employees with higher conscientiousness tend to be more self-motivated and able to manage their own schedules and deadlines independently. Those with lower conscientiousness are likely to need more oversight and support when working more independently or remotely.

2. Adjustment

Higher adjustment explains how someone reacts to stressors and their ability to manage and regulate their emotions. Those with higher adjustment levels tend to have an easier time adapting to some of the new demands and stressors of working remotely.

Those with lower adjustment levels may find new working environments stressful, but may also find working remotely relieves some of the stressors present in traditional working environments, such as workplace conflict or the challenges of the daily commute.

3. Curiosity

Workers with higher levels of curiosity enjoy learning new things, like new work environments and processes. Those with higher curiosity are likely to adapt more quickly to new working environments and more readily pick up new tools and technologies associated with remote or flexible working environments.

The personality profile of remote workers shows that they tend to be highly conscientious, resilient to stress and keen to learn.

Performance management

A key area raised by most remote workers was the importance of performance management, clear workplace expectations and deliverables.

Our research found that most remote workers want regular feedback, with more than a third (36%) preferring quarterly performance feedback, just under a third (32%) preferring monthly performance feedback and 23% reporting they would like weekly performance feedback.

This means the success of remote workers is dependent on clear performance expectations and effective communication.

One of the other clear findings was that remote workers overwhelmingly still want face-to-face feedback about their work performance, with 80% saying they wanted this.

Other preferred methods of feedback varied, with many people happy to have feedback on less formal channels from colleagues (for example, instant messaging). However, when it comes to contact with supervisors face-to-face conversations or video calling remained preferable.

This shows that, even though many business processes can now be automated, face time and direct communication should not be relegated or delegated to computer software.

With many remote workers still working in a traditional office environment at least part of the time, it is fairly straightforward to schedule this face-to-face meeting time with managers or peers.

From research to reality

The proportion of the workforce working remotely will continue to grow; this is no longer a niche topic.

It’s not just about taking a Friday afternoon off or working from home occasionally.

Most of the past research has shown that remote working has the potential to increase work engagement and productivity when the people who are working remotely are skilled, capable, motivated and want to work remotely.

And many remote workers would tell you that one of their biggest concerns is that people do not take them and their work seriously.

Another common concern among remote workers is that they have trouble ‘switching off’. Effective remote workers are far more likely to report difficulties putting work aside than procrastination.

Consequently, giving employees more autonomy has the desirable consequence of also boosting work engagement. Employees who have more independence and control over their own work schedules and environments, along with choosing how and when they complete tasks, report higher levels of satisfaction with their work and higher wellbeing.

Conversely, the less autonomy and control people are given over tasks the more disengaged and demotivated they will become.

Yet remote working is not for everyone. HR should not expect remote workers to be successful or effective without the proper selection, support, appropriate resources, development opportunities, performance management structure and software to enable their success.

If it becomes a cynical cost-cutting exercise, where people are expected to get more done with fewer resources and no communications infrastructure, it will become a costly failure.

HR should instead be shaping the culture and processes for remote workers in their company because (if managed well) remote working has the potential to make the workplace more flexible, healthier, more effective and more productive.

Ian MacRae is a work psychologist and author of five books including the upcoming book Myths of Social Media: Dismiss the misconceptions and use social media effectively in business.

Roberta Sawatzky is a professor at the Okanagan School of Business, a consultant, and a researcher focusing on remote work

This piece appeared in the February 2020 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk