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By Wilma Bedford

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced office workers the world over to move their workplaces to their homes and to embrace virtual teamwork almost overnight. For some it was easier than for others. There are ways to make the adjustment easier, though.

To work remotely is challenging at the best of times. Virtual teamwork now puts greater emphasis on communication and organisation as the social nuances of face-to-face contact can no longer be taken for granted. Research shows that newly formed, inexperienced virtual teams experience more team conflict, less satisfaction, less exchange of knowledge and poorer performance. On the other hand, teams that have been working together for longer adapt more easily. Nevertheless, “new” teams can master the situation systematically.

Although teams may find it easier to adapt to a virtual setup as a whole, the ability to change at an individual level may differ completely. Much of this has to do with whether or not you are the type of person who enjoys new challenges and whether or not you are willing to adapt to a new way of doing things.

In a study conducted by Andy Luse, a science manager at the Spears School of Business at the Oklahoma State University, the personality traits and thinking styles of more than 150 business students were measured and their preferences for virtual teamwork were assessed accordingly.

The research team reached the conclusion that virtual work, meaning that conversations no longer take place in passing in office passages or that no exchange of thoughts takes place in the staff room would lead to the assumption that the extrovert/introvert personality dimension is the determining factor. However, the traits of being imaginative and wanting to try out new things seem to be the most important, probably due to this personality type’s general willingness to experiment with new ways of working.

However, Luse says it is true that although extroverts prefer virtual teamwork rather than working alone, they may struggle with the current situation of forced remote working and the absence of face-to-face contact.

Although less important, a person’s level of introversion or extroversion is also a significant factor. “Extroverts would much rather work face-to-face than working virtually,” Luse says. On the other hand, introverts will work more easily alone and adapt better to a virtual environment as it requires less face-to-face interaction and is therefore mentally less tiring”.

While some of us may adapt to this new way of working better than others, it can also have a detrimental effect.

Initial findings claim that a period of intense virtual collaboration may change our personalities.  William Swart and Judy Siguaw of the East Carolina University studied the experiences of 58 business students who participated in intensive virtual teamwork for five weeks. By comparing the students’ personalities before and after the five weeks Swart and Siguaw found the students showed lower performance in respect of one of the five main personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, neurosis), namely agreeableness – which in essence means the extent to which you are cordial and friendly and trust others.

The researchers were of the opinion that this was the result of students becoming more experienced in how to convey their own opinions during virtual meetings. An introvert can easily be left out of the conversation in video conversations, and the students therefore became more extroverted and learnt to raise their voices and express their ideas so that the team could achieve its goals, which required a degree of aggression.

On the other hand, the introvert is not necessarily better at working from home, according to Matthew Davis, an associate professor at Leeds University’s Business School. While they may enjoy it to work on their own, introverts may find it difficult to be the sole focus of or to engage in virtual group conversations.

Swart says: “In this matter everyone is in the same boat, and if they do not compromise and work together they realise that they will not achieve their goal – with serious consequences”.

While it is true that some people adjust more easily to remote working than others, Meredith Turitis says it is just a matter of some people having to work harder than others to make the adjustment.

According to Turitis, it is a blessing for some people to work from home – they can be focused and be hyper-productive, and even find time to walk the dog and exercise in their pyjamas. Others do not find the transition that easy, in fact they find it counterproductive and have little to show at the end of the day.

One of the main aspects is the temptation to put things off. It is much easier to postpone things if you do not have a boss breathing down your neck. You can quickly disappear into the kitchen to try out a new recipe or surf on the internet for personal reasons without anyone noticing.

It is also easier to put aside unpleasant tasks. If you face an unpleasant task or struggle to solve a problem, your frustration tolerance is being tested, says Timothy Pychyl, an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ontario. People with a lower frustration tolerance are more inclined to postpone things – and will get up from their desks to look for distraction.

According to Pychyl those on the other side of the spectrum will persevere with their work. He added that people with a high frustration tolerance are generally also conscientious workers who are particularly successful with remote working. Research has shown that of the already mentioned five personality traits conscientiousness is the best predictor of performance.

The most productive remote workers know how to separate work and leisure from each other, putting them in “compartments”, as it were. Jean-Nicolas Reyt, an associate professor of organisational behaviour at McGill University in Montreal, refers to this as a “micro transition” between your tasks and your environment. It means you can take your dog for a walk, but you will set yourself a limit to be back at work by a specific time, and then set a limit for the amount of time you are going to spend on your work again”.

If you find it difficult to work from home take solace in knowing that very few people can work to their full potential in stressful times, says Pychyl. “The more you can adapt to your ‘new normal’ the better you will succeed to working remotely”.

 

SOURCES:

James, G. Is your personality type right for working remotely? https://www.inc.com/geoffrey-james

Jarrett, C. The personalities that benefit most from remote work. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/2020.06.01

Turitis, M. Why are some people better at working from home than others? https://www.bbc.com./worklife/article/2020.05.06

Van Thiel, E. Big five personality test traits. https://www.123test.com

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