As desirable as working from home can be — the seconds-long commute, the lack of co-worker interruptions, the sweat pants — it isn’t for everyone.
It’s lonely. Communication takes extra effort. And disconnecting from work takes even more.
With the number of all-remote companies climbing, and hybrid workplaces becoming the new normal in the wake of the pandemic, more people will be working from home than ever before. In fact, more than half of employers are planning to offer a mix of in-person and remote work, according to a new survey by the employment law firm Littler Mendelson. But how do they know if their workers are really suited for this arrangement long term?
The question is of great interest to employers as they start throwing open their office doors this summer. Employees’ ability to be productive at home has been firmly established during the pandemic, yet several chief executives have recently voiced downright hostility toward the concept. The head of WeWork said those most comfortable working from home are the “least engaged” with their jobs; Jamie Dimond, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase & Co., said telecommuting “doesn’t work for those who want to hustle.”
But remote work is wildly popular with workers — 81 percent of employees want to retain the ability to work from anywhere in some form, and 27 percent want to do it full time, according to a recent Harvard Business School Online survey. And companies are grappling with how to make it all come together.
After seeing a huge uptick in interest from clients interested in hiring remote workers, the Cambridge company Cangrade, which produces AI-based hiring assessments to help companies predict job candidates’ success, pinpointed a handful of abilities that indicate an aptitude for hunkering down at home. Follow-through, establishing tasks to regulate day-to-day work, and monitoring one’s own performance are key, Cangrade found.
“If you’re not strong at these three things, then no matter how wonderful or smart a human you are, you’re probably not going to succeed at remote work,” said Liana Epstein, Cangrade’s chief operating and analytics officer. “Some people love it and thrive, and some people flounder and miss the office desperately. . . . It’s a pain point that all of our current clients really struggled with in the past year.”
This struggle has led to Cangrade roughly doubling its business over the past year, the company said, as new customers look to manage and hire remote workers for the first time and current clients form new off-site roles. More than 30 companies use Cangrade’s assessments, including those hiring remote workers in information technology, retail, insurance, hospitality, and banking.
Cangrade has also identified two personality traits crucial for remote workers: grit and competitiveness.
“Grit is critical because it requires a degree of perseverance to sit in a room by yourself all day, every day amidst all the noise and distractions that all of us have at home, and stay completely focused and immersed in your work,” Epstein said. “It’s almost like a meditative state you’ve got to put yourself in.”
“Competitiveness is basically the idea that you care about how you look compared to your colleagues,” she added.
But there is much debate about how individual attributes play into a remote worker’s ability to thrive.
The worker isn’t changing, the environment is, noted Chelsea LeNoble, a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, specializing in industrial and organizational psychology. So doesn’t it make more sense to focus on external factors? Their supervisor, for instance. Some bosses have a tendency to become more “micromanagey” when their employees are off-site, LeNoble said, which is a sure way to deplete trust and demoralize an otherwise highly self-regulated worker.
LeNoble is convinced that personal attributes alone are unlikely to prevent anyone from mastering office-less-ness provided they have the right support and surroundings. It also depends on the nature of the job: Can it be done independently? Does it require uninterrupted time to think through complex issues? If so, working at home may be beneficial.
But seeking out people whose traits and soft skills seem to align with remote work could mean missing out on qualified employees, LeNoble said, such as people with executive dysfunction (an underlying condition affecting self-regulation in those with ADHD, autism, and depression) who may just need extra support.
Tsedal Neeley, a Harvard Business School professor and author of the new book “Remote Work Revolution: Succeeding From Anywhere,” who has been researching the subject “obsessively” for 20 years, agreed that selecting workers by personality traits is a “dangerous game.”
“If we begin to say this personality vs. that personality, we’re going to be creating exclusionary environments, and when we do that, we lose,” she said.
Neeley, who also developed her own remote work assessment, has no doubt that anyone can learn to be successful working beyond the confines of an office — even the roughly 15 percent of the population who say they don’t like working remotely — provided they have the right resources. Being part of a connected, in-sync remote team is crucial, for instance, especially considering the physical and psychological distance of working apart, she said.
As work continues to evolve into more virtual territory, including an increased reliance on artificial intelligence, companies will have to let go of the traditional concept of work and prepare for a “digital revolution,” she said: “We’re going to be working with ‘AI Bob’ as part of our team soon.”
Robert Glazer wasn’t planning for his marketing agency, Acceleration Partners, to be remote forever. But after hiring talent from all over the country when he launched it in 2007 from his Newton home, he realized establishing a physical headquarters wasn’t necessary. And in the years since, he’s learned a lot about what type of people shine beyond the confines of an office — so much so, in fact, that Glazer released a book this week called “How to Thrive in the Virtual World.”
In interviews, he likes to ask people who have previously worked remotely how they managed their time. If the candidate has a clear system — setting their alarm, establishing boundaries so they’re not bringing their laptop to bed — they tend to fare better than those who just muddle through, he said. People who truly value having flexibility, whether it’s a parent who wants to attend their children’s soccer games or a competitive athlete who needs time to train, are also often more prone for virtual success, he said.
On the other hand, social butterflies who get their energy from being around other people may struggle, as could recent college graduates who live in cramped quarters.
“If you are a 22-year-old in your first job in a 300-square-foot studio apartment in New York City, you probably want to go into the office,” he said.
Frank Weishaupt, chief executive of the Boston video conference company Owl Labs, who like many people was thrown into the world of remote work full time last year, has found that working successfully while miles apart can require a much more assertive communication style: being unafraid to chime in to a Slack discussion even when he doesn’t know the answers, and being humble enough not to mind people realizing it. But he knows this doesn’t come easy for some.
“If you’re an individual contributor that’s just starting out a new company, I’m sure it’s incredibly intimidating and difficult,” he said.
For plenty of people, however, especially those with attributes and duties conducive to remote work, the shift to working from home hasn’t been all that disruptive. Before the pandemic, Danielle Brown, Owl Lab’s director of global supply chain, went to the office in Somerville every day, for no particular reason other than that she lived close by. Now she lives 3,000 miles away in Northern California, where she grew up, and her work experience has stayed pretty much the same.
“It’s sunnier and warmer in California,” she said, “but really nothing changed.”