To help employees adjust to remote work, understand their personalities

April 8, 2020

It will be weeks and may be months before the COVID-19 crisis slows to the point where we can return to business as usual. In the meantime, companies have to buckle down and adjust to remote operations. Organizations who may not even have considered letting a significant portion of their employees work from home are now being forced to adjust to having to operate with the majority of their staff operating remotely. 

Many employees of course have already been working from home, and many more have been wanting to for quite some time. However, many workers who do not want to work from home--and even  a significant portion of those who want to--may find that it’s not exactly what they anticipated. In fact, lots of those who would normally enjoy it may find it to be oppressive under the current circumstances where the normal social activities that counter-balance the solitude of remote work have been put on hold--in some states under penalty of fines or imprisonment. And for everyone, the sudden and unplanned shift to remote working means that many who relied on the natural work/life boundaries of office life may fall into the ‘always-on’ trap, where work and life are blurred. 

How ‘shelter-in-place’ affects different personality types
Personality plays a clear role in how individuals react to this crisis, and even those preferring Introversion, who would normally enjoy a degree of solitude, may have difficulty. But an understanding of how personality type relates to preferences for remote working can help companies, teams and individuals adjust intelligently and productively to our new reality. 
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) assessment (disclosure: my company distributes this assessment) provides a model for understanding the dynamics of remote work that looks at four areas of personality. By understanding our preferences for work and socializing along these dimensions, we can implement strategies to cope:

Extraversion/Introversion looks at whether we prefer to focus our attention on the outside world (Extraversion), or on our inner world of thoughts and feelings (Introversion). The kinetic, highly social and active life that Extraverts thrive on may be very difficult to recreate within the confines of your own residence. This makes it doubly important for people with this preference to stay regularly connected through collaboration and chat tools like Skype and Zoom--both person-to-person, and through group meetings or chats.

Regular breaks from the routine and efforts to bring in outside stimulation may help ease the burden. As these can also be distractions, however, it may be important to plan time a little more carefully to ensure that there is enough space for distraction-free work. 

Introverts who thrive on peace and tranquillity may need to remember to take a break from the deep focus that they may be enjoying, as they may ultimately find that it drains their energy. Additionally, it’s important to keep in mind that everyone--Introverts as well as Extraverts--needs social interaction. So be sure that everyone has opportunities to interact with other team members. 

Sensing/Intuition involves whether we prefer to deal with detailed, concrete information (Sensing) or the big picture (Intuition). For employees who prefer Sensing, maintaining regular contact is critical, as it will help balance a tendency to get mired in the details of work, and a feeling of losing touch with the real world. Those preferring intuition may be inclined to over-complicate things--occasionally talking with someone with the opposite preference (Sensing) may help them refocus their attention on those things that are truly important.

Thinking/Feeling has to do with whether we prefer to make decisions on the basis of objective logic (Thinking) or on the basis of our values and how people will be affected (Feeling). Without the benefit of person-to-person social communication, someone with a Thinking preference may come across as impersonal and even terse in email and IM. Remind them to take care to maintain a human touch, and remind employees with a Feeling preference not to take the occasional ‘to-the-point’ email personally.

Judging/Perceiving describes whether we prefer to live our lives in an ordered, structured way (Judging) or in a more open, spontaneous way (Perceiving). Those who prefer Judging like structure and planning, and for them being thrust into a work-from-home environment may be discombobulating. Anything you can do that helps them get into a routine quickly will be beneficial, such as clear objectives and start/stop times for projects and working hours. Those with a Perceiving preference, on the other hand, may like the newfound flexibility of remote work. However, they need to be aware that if they communicate with team members during off hours, it may not be helpful or welcome. In such cases, having clear guidelines for what is considered urgent may help so that colleagues don’t think they have to be ‘on call’--this is particularly important for managers and executives.

We all have to be flexible in these shifting times
There’s no doubt Covid-19 is proving to be disruptive across all industries, and stress levels are going to be much higher than normal. Those companies that learn to adapt quickly to the changes are likely to fare the best. When it comes to helping a team manage through intense change, there is no better starting point than understanding the personalities and preferences for work and social interaction of your team members.

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