- Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a debate about whether workers are happier and more productive at home or in the office.
- A recent study that my team conducted examined changes in job outcomes during the transition to remote work.
- Two personality traits, extroversion and conscientiousness, predicted decreasing performance and lower well-being over time.
At the start of the pandemic, employees around the world rapidly transitioned to remote work. Before 2020, remote workers only accounted for a small part of the workforce. But last year they accounted for over 40 percent of the US workforce (Bloom, 2020). Now, many organizations are deciding if and when to bring workers back to the office, with some tech companies (like Facebook) announcing plans to keep the option for remote work open indefinitely. This decision is partly based on a debate about whether workers are more productive and more satisfied at home (or in a traditional office).
Are workers actually better off at home, or in the office? We conducted a four-month study to examine how workers experienced the transition to remote working (Evans et al., 2021). We followed a group of (mostly) UK remote workers during the first wave of the pandemic, from May to August 2020. Surprisingly, we found that workers, on average, did not become much better off (or worse off) over time. Instead, two personality traits, extroversion and conscientiousness, predicted whether workers improved (or got worse) over time. Our findings suggest that remote work might not be a long-term solution for everyone. This is something organizations should think about as they decide whether to bring employees back into the office.
Are We Better Together?
Since the start of the pandemic, there has been an ongoing public debate about whether working at home is an improvement over traditional office life. On the positive side, remote workers save time and money on commuting, and it gives workers more flexibility in choosing where to live and how to balance work and personal life. But, at the same time, working at home can be lonely, and it might be harder for teammates to collaborate and trust each other without regular face-to-face contact.
In our study, we tested whether job outcomes (such as worker performance, job satisfaction, and feelings of burnout) changed over time during the course of our study. When looking at people, on average, there was not much change. Workers became slightly less productive over time, but for the most part, overall levels of performance and well-being did not change much over the course of our study.
Personality Predicts Adjustment
Rather than seeing one overall effect (everyone got worse, or everyone got better), we found that changes in worker outcomes were predicted by personality. Two traits, extroversion and conscientiousness, consistently predicted whether workers experienced better (or worse) outcomes over time.
Extroversion is a social trait. People who score high in extroversion tend to be talkative, outgoing, and energetic. People who score low on the trait (introverts) are more likely to be reserved and keep to themselves. We found that workers scoring high in extroversion had worse outcomes over time. They had worse performance, less satisfaction with their jobs, and greater feelings of burnout. On the other hand, introverted employees improved on the same outcomes. Maybe this finding is unsurprising. Although extraverted employees often experience positive outcomes at work (Wilmot et al., 2019), it makes sense that they would struggle with the social isolation of remote work.
Conscientiousness is a trait associated with self-discipline, diligence, and careful work. Like extroversion, conscientiousness is another trait that is usually considered desirable in the workplace (Wilmot & Ones, 2019). For example, conscientious employees are more likely to meet their deadlines and don’t procrastinate. But we found that conscientious employees got worse over time, and employees scoring low on the trait improved. Why did conscientious employees struggle with remote work? One possibility is that they struggle with unstructured environments; they work well in situations where there are clear rules and procedures. During the first months of the pandemic, many organizations had to adapt quickly and invent new procedures. This may have been especially stressful for conscientious employees.
Note that there are some important caveats to our findings: For example, it is hard to say whether our findings are based on experiences with remote work itself or experiences with remote work during a pandemic. We collected data during the first wave of the pandemic, when there were many additional challenges on top of the normal difficulties associated with remote work.
We (Don’t) Have to Go Back
It’s been over a year since we finished data collection for our study. And now many employees are contemplating the future of their remote work policies. Our findings suggest that experiences with remote work are shaped, in part, by personality traits like extroversion and conscientiousness. This means that one-size-fits-all policies, whether they bring workers back to the office or keep them at home, are not going to work well for everyone.
Bloom, N. (2020). How working from home works out. Retrieved from https://siepr. stanford.edu/research/publications/how-working-home-works-out.
Evans, A. M., Meyers, M. C., De Calseyde, P. P. V., & Stavrova, O. (2021). Extroversion and Conscientiousness Predict Deteriorating Job Outcomes During the COVID-19 Transition to Enforced Remote Work. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 19485506211039092.
.Wilmot, M. P., & Ones, D. S. (2019). A century of research on conscientiousness at work. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(46), 23004-23010.
Wilmot, M. P., Wanberg, C. R., Kammeyer-Mueller, J. D., & Ones, D. S. (2019). Extraversion advantages at work: A quantitative review and synthesis of the meta-analytic evidence. Journal of Applied Psychology, 104(12), 1447-1470.