Since the outset of the coronavirus outbreak the world has changed suddenly and dramatically in various ways. The impacts of these changes have dominated our personal, family and work lives, including decisions that span everything from shopping to socializing to the ways in which we work.
During these unprecedented times we have borne witness to both ends of the behavioral spectrum and everything in between, including hoarding household supplies such as toilet paper, debates over the merits of mask-wearing and sharp increases in pet adoption as one of the more positive consequences.
These trends, some of which are rooted in facts and others in fiction, got me thinking about how our different personality styles affect the ways that we individually and collectively cope in these relatively new circumstances.
Personality types can be traced back to the Five Factor Model, which was originally developed in the 1960s to identify the relationships between personality and academic achievement. Ernest Tupes and Raymond Christal completed the original research, which was further advanced in the 1980s by Lewis Goldberg at the Oregon Research Institute and codified into the following five dimensions: 1) openness, 2) conscientiousness, 3) extraversion, 4) agreeableness and 5) neuroticism. These five factors form the basis for most contemporary personality assessments and are practically defined as follows in a 2002 article published by Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin:
Recent research during the coronavirus pandemic by Shaun Biggs and Simon Toms with 177 participants showed strong positive and negative correlations between these personality types and employee engagement, work-life balance and well-being.
First, individuals who scored high on the extraversion scale were shown to be highly engaged in previous studies, and these trends remained consistent during the abrupt shift to full-time remote work. Next, those who scored lower on the agreeableness scale were prone to feelings of loneliness and anxiety as a result of working in this new way. Finally, those individuals who scored higher on the openness scale also experienced higher levels of loneliness as a result of working out of the office and independently. These results suggest that while on the surface work-life balance may seem improved by virtue of building competence for working remotely, one’s personality traits have a more direct correlation to positive or negative experiences and feelings about working in this new way.
These findings have practical implications for the organizations, teams and the manager-direct report relationship. While many tried-and-true contemporary practices work well in the traditional in-person office environment, there are some adjustments and emphases that will help translate these to our current reality.
Go wide. To account for varying preferences among these distinct personality styles, communicate more regularly and predictably at the organizational and team levels. Use multiple communication channels including asynchronous (e.g., email) and synchronous (e.g., virtual meetings and social media) means to create understanding and alignment about the current state. Additionally, use these communication vehicles to listen to employees’ questions and concerns so that input is regularly gathered for future use. For example, establish a short, weekly people manager meeting hosted by a senior executive to create a forum to rapidly communicate from the top of the organization to managers and to the front lines.
Go local. In any organization, front-line people managers have the most leverage by virtue of their proximity to clients, products and daily operations. Working in this remote and distributed way increases the importance for managers to regularly check the pulse of their teams, especially knowing that those who are higher on the agreeableness and openness scales could more likely experience feelings of loneliness and angst. While this is harder to do in our new virtual world of work, this is where managers and their teams can develop innovative and meaningful ways to stay connected virtually and also ensure that team members whose personality styles find them craving interaction have support from their teammates to avoid isolation. For example, employing practices such as virtual team socials and skip-level group meetings are also helpful for larger teams with more layers.
Go lateral. While direct teams are part of an organizational hierarchy and there may be natural limits to sharing and vulnerability, tapping internal peer networks is a good practice that can be used to contend with these new ways of working. For people managers, sharing team engagement approaches with a peer or peer group is a way to tap into new team practices. Similarly, for individual contributors, forming a regular virtual get-together to compare experiences, ideas and solutions is another way to maintain engagement and reduce feelings of separation.
Go for outcomes. If there was ever a time to focus on clear expectations, it is while we all adjust to working in these new ways. By way of working from our home offices or even our kitchen tables, the intersection between work and our lives couldn’t be more acute. For this reason, being clear about goals and expected outcomes, while also acknowledging that the diversity of individual personalities will manifest itself in distinct workstyles, puts a premium on being flexible about how results are achieved. This necessitates that the manager and direct report relationship is built on mutual trust given the absence of close working proximity. The good news is that these adjustments in workstyles create the opportunity to develop new ways of accomplishing tasks by simultaneously learning from these new ways of working.
While we all continue to adjust during these unprecedented times, taking a personality assessment to learn about one’s stylistic tendencies is likely to be helpful. There are plenty of free online assessments that are easy to review and interpret, which could be used for a fun virtual team meeting focused on learning more about oneself and each other. With this new awareness, organizations, teams and individuals can adjust in the present to then develop new practices and future ways of working.