Monday, 4 May 2020

Working from Home – A Psychological and Personality Perspective


I always find it interesting when classic psychological theory can help inform current situations. It has become apparent that working from home (WFH), and social isolation, like many things follows the Yerkes-DodsonLaw, with its inverted U-shape relationship. 

The Yerkes-Dodson Law is traditionally used to describe the relationship between levels of mental and physiological arousal and performance, see Figure 1. When we are at our optimum level of arousal, we perform to our maximum (the top of the curve). However, when the level of arousal is low, for example, when we are tired, demotivated, lethargic or bored our performance drops. Furthermore, when our level of arousal is high, for example when excited or stressed, performance also drops. 


The inverted U-shape curve applies to many relationships and indeed appears to apply to WFH. We are all discovering the ideal amount of time we can work from home to reach our optimum performance. Too little WFH and we may lose performance due to too many daily distractions from colleagues. Too much WFH and we may lose performance due to too few interactions with colleagues, and other home distractions. 

Another relevant psychological theory is Altman’s Privacy Regulation Theory. Privacy is often confused with social withdrawal, but Altman argues privacy is a dynamic boundary regulation process where privacy is our desired level of social interaction. So, if the achieved level of privacy is more than that desired, we will feel lonely or isolated. In contrast, if the level of privacy is less than the desired one, we will feel crowded. Not achieving the desired level of privacy, either too high or too low, will result in stress and loss of performance. So, the abscissa of the Yerkes-Dodson chart could be level of interaction rather than arousal, see Figure 2.  

Regarding the current situation with Covid-19 and social isolation, the abscissa could also be viewed as time. There is an optimum amount of time working from home to reach maximum performance. For example, it may take a few days to settle into a new routine, adopt new technology or working practices. However, as time goes on performance may drop due to lack of interaction, management, motivation and innovation etc. Indeed, my recent research on workplace loneliness, found that long-term home workers have higher levels of loneliness. The trick is to extend the peak of optimum performance and, borrowing a current analogy, “flatten the curve” to maintain performance, see Figure 3.

As with the classic Arousal-Performance relationship, the Yerkes-Dodson WFH curve also varies with personality, see Figure 4, and complexity of task. Personality types such as Introverts are more likely to cope with extended periods of social isolation, but it may take them more tie to settle into a routine, their new surroundings and way of working. In contrast, Extroverts are likely to miss interaction sooner than their Introverted colleagues and may be more easily distracted by other home activities. Extroverts will require more interaction via phone and on-line meetings. Clearly home-working is more suited to tasks requiring focus and concentration, to which Introverts are generally better suited, and virtual collaboration tools allow controlled interaction, which Introverts may also prefer. 

As managers it is key to recognise how individual team members are coping with WFH and provide the appropriate level of support. Regarding management, some staff will require more on-going objectives setting and deadlines, whereas others will require more daily (virtual) interaction and guidance in order to maintain performance through extended periods of isolation. 

Think about how you can replicate good management techniques used in the office in remote working environments. For example, hold regular team meetings (and even on-line social events), check-in with staff regularly with videoconference (Zoom or Team) calls, set short-term and long-term deadlines, and monitor work tasks and performance with appropriate rewards.

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