personality and flexible work

Time for Personality to Shine

Employers have neglected the impact personality can have on the success of flexible working, but researchers are turning their attention to strategies for smooth transitions, says Heather Greig-Smith.

Not everyone desires flexibility. There are those who prefer to come into an office to work nine to five even if they are given flexibility over work location and time.

Only some will be this extreme in their preferences, and most of us favour a degree of flexibility in our working lives. However, employers transitioning their organisations to exciting new ways of working may be surprised to discover that not everyone finds the change easy.

The intersection of personality with agile working is an area some claim has been neglected in favour of buildings and technology. While these more tangible elements are important, progress can be entirely derailed by the people and teams that use them. Reports of line manager or individual resistance are common and experts say personality testing is a valuable tool in aiding empathy and understanding.

This doesn’t mean we should use personality testing to decide who can work from home and who stays in the office.

Contrary to denying flexibility for some groups, recent research focuses on understanding which traits may make flexible working harder for those employees and how to counteract this using good management and individual strategies.

Consultant John Eary conducted research for the UK Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion (enei). They chose the DISC profiling system, which analyses individuals using the traits of dominance, influence, steadfastness and conscientiousness.

“The sense that everyone who does the same job will have the same needs and requirements is old-fashioned. We are talking about people and changing cultures,” said Eary. “You should use it to try and understand people. Middle managers have a tough job in managing people they don’t see every day and setting measurable outputs—this can give them greater understanding of how their team members may feel.”

He cautions against using categories to define people absolutely, preferring instead to see personality testing as a tool that can help managers understand staff and the areas of agile working that they may find difficult.

Broadly speaking, the report says “maverick” dominant personalities may need boundary setting, influencers will need strong management and plenty of interaction, steadfast employees will generally thrive but may be reluctant to admit to problems they are having and conscientious workers need to be monitored carefully in case their perfectionist tendencies lead them to burnout.

The enei is following up its research with workshops to help employers further in their journey to agility.

Canadian consultancy Work EvOHlution is also keen to help organisations with the transition to agile working. It takes a scientific approach to personality and flexible working, and its founders have spent 12 years in academic research, identifying traits that are important for distributed workers and teams.

“We believe most people can work remotely at least some of the time,” says founder Dr. Laura Hambley. “Some people can work remotely all of the time and really thrive and then there are some people—and luckily it’s the minority—who really struggle with working remotely when away from structure and supervision. They can do it but will require a lot of support, and they are not going to be as engaged.”

Hambley and her team work with organisations to come up with strategies to smooth the path to flexible working. Earlier this month they launched a distributed leader assessment tool, identifying the traits and skills necessary to successfully manage remote workers.

She says it is possible for organisations and employers to operate a trial-and-error process, but for those seeking workplace transformation, this is a risky strategy. While they are trying things out, individuals who are struggling will be less engaged and turnover is likely to rise.

“You have to be way better and way more on top of things than in a traditional environment where you can stop miscommunication very quickly,” says Hambley’s co-founder Dr. Tom O’Neill. “A lot of managers are resisting this because they don’t have the skills.”

That is set to change. The spread of agile working means greater levels of research and analysis of what works. Personality appears to be ready for some overdue attention.


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