Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies have had work-from-home measures in place for months now.
The idea of working from home can seem like an appealing one, with its perceived freedom and lack of supervision – but it’s likely that certain people are having an easier time than others when it comes to working remotely.
David Zweig is chair of the department of management at the University of Toronto. He says that while existing research on the relationship between personality traits and remote work is limited, one trait in particular likely leads to having an easier time coping with work-from-home measures.
“It makes sense to think about introversion as one of the personality traits that might allow us to adapt better to working from home,” he told CTVNews.ca over the phone on Thursday. “Introverts generally don’t have any problem working in isolation, they prefer quieter activities, [and] they’re not the people who are always looking to be the centre of attention.”
Those who are introverted are generally shy and keep a small circle of close friends, said Zweig. Because they tend to prefer more independent activities, they likely wouldn’t struggle with being away from their colleagues.
Extroverts, on the other hand, tend to be more outgoing and expressive. Zweig said they enjoy being the centre of attention and prefer making plenty of broader connections with those around them – all of which is hard to achieve while working from home.
John Hackston, head of thought leadership at The Myers-Briggs Company, agrees that because working from home prevents employees from engaging with their usual company, it can be especially challenging for extroverts.
Myers-Briggs specializes in business psychology and is responsible for creating the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a famous personality test used to sort people into one of 16 personality types. Workplaces across the world have used these tests for decades to make decisions regarding employees, although the scientific community largely rejects the system's methods and claims.
“[Extroverts] get their energy from the outside world [and] to some extent, that’s been cut off,” Hackston told CTVNews.ca on Thursday via telephone. “The idea of not having people around to talk to, not having stimulation from the environment because they’re looking at the same four walls, not being able to travel and socialize and so on, is something that could be stressful.”
But as Zweig sees it, when assessing which employees are best suited to working from home, it's also important to look at other aspects of a person’s personality.
“Whenever you’re trying to figure out someone’s personality, you have to look at it as more than just a singular trait,” he said. “You have to look at the interaction of all of those things to get a really good understanding of what a person is like.”
Other characteristics, such as openness, also have an impact on how a person will behave while working from home, especially if they are doing so for the very first time, Zweig said.
“Someone who is lower in openness tends to see things in black or white, or in a concrete kind of way” he said. “Someone who’s higher in openness is more willing to accept shades of grey in situations and approach new environments with a little more tolerance.”
But perhaps one of the more important personality traits to consider when assessing those likely to have an easier time working from home is a person’s level of neuroticism or emotional stability.
HIGH LEVELS OF EMOTIONAL STABILITY ARE KEY
According to a 2018 study led by Sara Perry, assistant professor of management at Baylor University, those with low emotional stability have a harder time thriving in remote work settings.
She describes those with high emotional stability as “even-keeled,” meaning they are not easily knocked down by challenges that arise, instead cruising through them smoothly and steadily. Those currently working from home for the first time are likely facing a number of new challenges, including working separately from coworkers as well as in environments with more distractions.
In these situations, a person with a high level of emotional stability is less likely to be disturbed or distracted. They’re also more likely to find alternate solutions or proactively make plans should things go awry.
“They tend to remain rational and they don’t experience things emotionally as much as other people,” Perry told CTVNews.ca over the phone on Thursday. “These people are the most able to make tough decisions in light of challenges.”
Those on the opposite end of the spectrum often struggle with this. Perry points out that those with low levels of emotional stability usually experience rapid changes in mood, going from high highs to low lows. They also fear being abandoned.
THE IMPORTANCE OF AUTONOMY
According to Perry, it’s necessary, to an extent, for an employee to be given independence while working out of the office. This could be in the form of freedom to make their own decisions regarding the work they do, or even flexibility in how or when to do it.
“In general, the research on remote work shows that it is an important resource for everyone,” said Perry. “Autonomy is one of the key ingredients for successful remote work.”
But those with less emotional stability may not be so keen on being left to their own devices. Whether it’s the need for approval on assignments or simple reassurance, those with this particular trait often require a greater need for communication and support while working from home, though it isn’t always easily obtained.
“When people who are lower in emotional stability have more autonomy and they work remotely, they experience more exhaustion, more disengagement, and definitely more dissatisfaction,” she said. “They may feel really left alone [and] isolated to deal with all their own problems by themselves.”
Emotional stability is largely linked to stress levels, said Perry, as well as overall health.
WORKING REMOTELY DURING A GLOBAL PANDEMIC
Working through a global pandemic can be difficult for anyone, regardless of individual personality traits, emphasized Zweig.
“It’s all this uncertainty – we don’t know how this is going to end,” he said. “That creates a lot of anxiety and fear for people.”
In times of extreme and prolonged stress, such as having to work from home in isolation for months on end, Hackston explained that there’s the chance a person’s psyche may begin to flip, causing them to exhibit behaviours that are opposite to those associated with their core personality.
“By exhibiting more of their core character … time and time again, it’s almost as if that part of their personality gets exhausted and there’s no energy left in there,” he explained. “What then happens is the opposite [meaning] the part of their personality they least use suddenly jumps out.
“Since they haven’t used this part of their personality very much and they’re in a bad place, it comes out in a negative way.”
He described this as “being in the grip” of the opposite trait. For those who are introverts at their core, this means exploding outwardly with intense displays of emotion ranging from anger to sadness, as well as indulging the senses. For extroverts, it means withdrawing from others and reverting within, resorting to negative thoughts of doubt and disapproval.
The good news is that there are ways to adapt and make the most out of working from home, no matter what type of personality you have.
TIPS FOR INTROVERTS
For those who are more introverted, Hackston recommends making an effort to set aside time for loved ones. Introverts often become too absorbed in their work, he said, which can lead to an imbalance between their home life and work life.
Hackston insists this can be avoided by creating a schedule with time blocked out for conversations and activities with family and friends. This also helps others to be more aware of when it is and isn’t OK to bother you.
On the topic of becoming too involved in work, Hackston also recommends taking breaks during the day.
Perry goes a little further to suggest using the time saved by not getting ready or commuting to do other things such as organizing lunch calls, going for a walk, or doing a quick workout.
“Think about how to use those breaks to manage your well-being,” she said.
Finally, while it may be counter-intuitive, Hackston also suggests staying in contact with colleagues, especially more extroverted ones.
“It’s about learning how to get along together,” he said.
TIPS FOR EXTROVERTS
For extroverts, Hackston strongly advises taking opportunities to connect with coworkers, but not just to chat about work.
“The conversation doesn’t have to be for a purpose, it could just be in order to have that contact,” he said. “It contributes to getting their needs met and to be able to be energized.”
He also suggests looking for ways to maintain contact with the outside world. Going for walks or runs for a change of scenery can be especially helpful for the more extroverted types.
Finally, Hackston suggests creating a more stimulating work environment at home by keeping a vibrant workspace filled with pictures and even music.
“Extroverted people like that buzz of people and stuff happening in a busy and lively environment,” he said. “The more that they can get of that, the better that fits their needs.”
TIPS FOR EMPLOYERS
Perry advises managers to be strategic when it comes to deciding who should work from home.
“If you’re choosing among people … you could think about how well someone manages stress in the office,” she said. “If they don’t manage it very well and they tend to react pretty strongly to challenges, that would be someone that might have a more difficult time working at home.”
Managers should also consider supporting their employees with less emotional stability in ways that cater to them. This could involve more proactive communication, such as weekly phone calls, or making sure employees have all the technological resources they need.
“Ask what is easily accessible in the office that is not going to be easily accessible at home and find a way to make that more accessible,” she said. “Make it easier for them by reducing number of challenges.”