- Employee personality traits are key drivers of performance differences when it comes to hybrid work.
- Extraversion and emotional stability have a significant correlation with performance during remote work.
- Companies that match work arrangements with personality traits can improve overall efficiency of remote workers.
- Despite research showing that remote employees are more productive, managers still face challenges trusting employees outside of the office.
Many employees excel in hybrid or even fully remote work settings, outperforming expectations to deliver outstanding results. Others in the same roles struggle to work effectively outside the office, even if they have the same home office arrangements and are deemed equally talented by their managers.
Such seemingly random differences can frustrate and confuse managers. Unsurprisingly, managers focus on the underperformers and end up developing a general mistrust of employee productivity outside the office. No wonder that Microsoft research found that “85 percent of leaders say that the shift to hybrid work has made it challenging to have confidence that employees are being productive.”
Having helped 21 organizations figure out successful hybrid work arrangements and written a best-selling book about this topic, I can confidently state that employee personality differences represent one important driver of these seemingly random performance differences. My consulting clients found that by matching hybrid work arrangements to the relevant personality traits of their workers, they can optimize employee performance, resulting in a win-win for everyone involved.
Measuring Employee Personality
In assessing personality, it’s vital to use the right measurements. Avoid using tests that research shows poorly predict job performance despite their popularity, such as DiSC and MBTI. As the Harvard Business Review reports, “due to limited predictive validity, low test-retest reliability, lack of norming and an internal consistency (lie detector) measure, etc.,” they fail to predict job performance effectively.
The Big Five personality test offers a much better option. It consists of five personality dimensions: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness to experience, and emotional stability (also called neuroticism). This test has shown a high degree of predictive validity, test-retest reliability, convergence with self-ratings, and ratings by others.
Just as importantly for the workplace, scientists have found that the Big Five actually does predict job performance. For instance, a study evaluating five occupational groups—professionals, police, managers, sales, and skilled/semi-skilled—found that higher conscientiousness correlates with better performance in all these groups. Plenty of other research validated the predictive power of the Big Five test.
Employee Personality and Hybrid Work
So what did we find?
The Big Five factor of conscientiousness—characterized by qualities such as being organized, reliable, self-disciplined, taking ownership of tasks, and showing initiative in problem-solving—strongly correlates with higher performance during the time when employees work remotely. Certainly, those with higher conscientiousness also performed better in the office. However, the difference in performance between high-conscientiousness and low-conscientiousness employees was much bigger when staff members worked from home, with a high statistical significance (p < .01).
Those high on extraversion perform less well when working from home, with a substantial statistical significance (p < .01), compared to working in the office. That’s not surprising: Extraversion is the personality trait describing people who are more sociable, outgoing, talkative, assertive, and energized by others. Those high on extraversion tend to experience more loneliness and social isolation when working from home, undermining their performance.
The factor of emotional stability also predicted higher performance outside the office with a statistical significance, though to a lesser extent than conscientiousness or extraversion (p < .05). Those higher on emotional stability are calmer, more even-tempered, resilient in the face of stress, and less prone to negative emotions, such as anxiety, anger, and depression. The time spent working remotely requires staff to do greater emotional self-regulation with less emotional support available from managers and teammates.
People higher in openness to experience performed better during the time they worked remotely, although the magnitude of difference was lower than for conscientiousness or extraversion (p < .05)—comparable to emotional stability. Openness to experience refers to a person's willingness to consider new ideas and experiences and be open-minded, creative, curious, and imaginative. As part of client engagements, I train managers and staff on how to avoid shoehorning office-based methods of collaboration, innovation, and management into hybrid work, and instead adopt best practices for hybrid work. Those with a lower openness to experience score tend to have more difficulty adjusting to hybrid work modalities, and their performance suffers.
We haven’t found any statistically significant differences in performance between in-office and remote settings for the last factor, agreeableness. This personality trait refers to a person's tendency to be cooperative and get along with others, with a focus on compromise and reluctance to engage in competition and conflict.
Worker Productivity and Personality Differences in Hybrid Work
This research data helps explain why some managers feel frustrated and develop certain stories in their heads about workers working poorly from home. We have extensive research showing that overall, employees are substantially more efficient working remotely.
For instance, according to a study conducted at Stanford University, employees who worked remotely were 5 percent more productive than those who worked in an office setting in the summer of 2020. By the spring of 2022, the productivity gap between remote and in-office workers had increased to 9 percent. This improvement in the productivity of remote workers is thought to be due to companies becoming more adept at facilitating remote work and investing in technology that is more conducive to remote work.
Nonetheless, despite the extensive data, managers still feel suspicious of any time their hybrid employees work remotely. They’re not wrong to feel some concern: some workers do perform less well remotely in the same roles and with similar home office conditions, a change that may be due largely to personality differences. And although the large majority perform better, managers naturally pay the most attention to the poor performers.
Paying attention to the worst news stems from a cognitive bias known as availability bias. This bias refers to the tendency for us to focus on information that is most easily accessible in our memory, which tends to be the most negative information about the bad performers.
Fortunately, these are not insolvable problems. Having developed the data set of personality traits that modulate performance when staff work remotely, we help clients adjust hybrid work arrangements to suit different people’s personalities. We also train managers on how to use the Big Five personality assessments to shift the work arrangements of their team members to help everyone perform most effectively.
For example, unless someone is high in conscientiousness and low in extraversion, we strongly discourage having that person work fully remotely. For those high in extraversion and low in conscientiousness, and especially if they’re also low in emotional stability and openness to experience, we suggest that managers have such workers come in several days a week.
So can someone who is low in conscientiousness and high in extraversion succeed when working from home? Of course; the trends I described are simply statistical average tendencies.
However, the data suggest that it will be much harder for someone with these personality traits to be successful. It will require more support from the manager and their team to help engage and motivate such employees over time, while addressing the threat of loneliness and social isolation. Even if such staff are passionate about working from home, in the large majority of cases, their performance will likely slip once the initial burst of passion is gone in a few months. I don’t recommend setting up such employees for failure by depriving them of the structure, motivation, and socialization benefits provided by the office.
Managers don’t have to be frustrated by the seemingly random variation in productivity between the members of their hybrid teams. By assessing the personality traits of their team members and adapting hybrid work arrangements to fit their needs, they can optimize team member performance in a win-win for all.
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