Adapting to Perform in a Mobile Work Environment

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Chair of the Month

Laura Hambley and Tom O’Neill of distributed work consultancy, Work EvOHlution, weigh in.

The team at Work EvOHlution, whose job it is to help leaders, teams, and employees adapt to mobile work environments.
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Driven by the challenges of doing business in the global, technology-driven economy, and by an increasing demand for flexibility, the distributed workforce is growing. Whether you call it mobile or remote work, agile or flexwork, WORKshift, or telework/telecommuting, the reality is that many workers are no longer tied to the traditional office. The benefits of flexible working arrangements range from improved employee engagement and productivity, to reduced commuting and less pressure on infrastructure. Of course, new challenges also come alongside these benefits.

Organizations may lack the technology to support remote work, and employees may not have sufficient home-office space. Beyond these practical barriers, there are socially and culturally bound challenges. Management is often concerned about whether productivity will suffer, and employees are wary of becoming isolated from their peers or being passed over for promotions. Although addressing these challenges can be difficult, it is critical to do so if organizations hope to reap the benefits of flexible work. However, when organizations adopt flexible work they tend to focus on managing the practical requirements, such as technology and facilities. This often means limited attention to the human elements that impact success.

Further, though there is substantial research linking personality attributes and work styles to various job-related outcomes, such as performance or satisfaction, little research has focused on how such traits contribute to success in mobile work arrangements. This is especially concerning since mobile work can be quite ambiguous and introduce employees, leaders, and teams to new challenges.

The reality is that many workers are no longer tied to the traditional office.

These research limitations, along with organizations not knowing how to assess their people, means there is little attention on helping people understand themselves as mobile workers. With over 12 years of industrial/organizational psychology research on the topic, Work EvOHlution is excited to be closing this gap.

There are some critics of personality assessments, including for use within distributed work environments. Some assert that decisions about whether someone is suited for mobile work should not be based on an assessment, or worry that people will be placed into strict categories that prevent some from getting the opportunity to try mobile work. However, a key takeaway from Work EvOHlution’s research is that most people can work remotely some of the time. Of course there are individuals who may be more or less successful working away from the traditional office, but most people can be productive and engaged with a balance of time in and out of the office. Additionally, with the right development and supports in place, a person can move along the continuum to become more successful as a mobile worker.

How does an employee, or an employee’s manager, find out what an optimal amount of time away from the office may be? And how do they know what developments and supports are necessary? Unfortunately, many organizations rely on trial and error to determine how often a person can work well away from the office. Using the trial and error method is like walking into mobile work blindfolded.

Consider a high performing, highly sociable employee. When first presented with the opportunity to start working from home, the employee jumps at the chance and is excited by the increased flexibility and decreased commuting that will translate to more time spent with family. Once this “honeymoon” period wears off, though, this employee starts to feel isolated and cut-off from their colleagues. As satisfaction decreases, the employee starts to look for another job and eventually leaves the organization. To replace that high performer could cost upwards of $30,000-50,000. While this may be a worst-case scenario, even losing just a few great employees is the risk, and the reality, of leaving the human elements of mobile work to chance.

By utilizing psychometric assessment tools, it’s possible to identify an individual’s propensity for mobile work based on eleven key personality traits, including introversion, quick starting, and impulse control.

Instead, with utilizing psychometric assessment tools like those of Work EvOHlution, it’s possible to identify an individual’s propensity for mobile work based on eleven key personality traits, including introversion, quick starting, and impulse control. Validated with over 750 North American employees, these traits reliably predict an employee’s overall fit with distributed work, as well as their likelihood for success on outcomes including performance, satisfaction, engagement, focus, and work-life balance. Existing personality tools, such as the Myers-Briggs, DiSC and Insights, were not designed to predict mobile work success, so it is important to be very cautious about drawing linkages with traits on these four-quadrant models and mobile work success.

So why rely on trial and error when we have the data to anticipate such challenges? Think back to the high performer mentioned earlier. Had the employee and his/her manager been made aware of the challenges associated with his/her personality profile, they could have developed a plan to address challenges, determined the ideal mix of time at the office and from home, and headed off the eventual turnover.

Take quick starting, for example. Describing an individual’s inclination to resist procrastination, this trait becomes especially critical in mobile work. Often, a person may not realize they struggle to get started on work tasks until away from the structure of the traditional office. Recognizing this tendency allows an employee and their manager to develop a plan to establish routines for days outside the office and write down goals and key tasks. Whatever the attribute, individuals can learn ways to tackle the challenges they are likely to face in a mobile working arrangement. This can save valuable time and resources, while preventing frustration.

These principles can also be applied to teams. Seldom are employees working in isolation, so it’s important to consider the impacts of mobile work for teams. Even one person’s mobile work arrangement has implications for others with whom they work, and those challenges are compounded with more widely dispersed teams. A distributed team diagnostic provides a practical way to identify a team’s strengths and areas for development, preventing costly inefficiencies. In addition to providing an overall snapshot of members’ individual personalities, results of a team assessment also highlight a team’s diversity and jump start key discussions for developing trust and high performance.

In sum, whether used to support an employee, their manager, or a team, personality assessment and profiling has important implications for organizations and their mobile working programs. Armed with knowledge of how key attributes can influence distributed work success, organizations can take matters into their own hands and not leave the human elements to chance.

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