How COVID-19 has Permanently Changed the Way We Work

Rick Beaton  •  Mar 11, 2020  •  12 min read

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has accelerated the change in how we view work by forcing our society to isolate and social distance. Many professionals are working from home and wondering about the value of remote work.

Welcome to the New Frontier of Work

Technological advances have made it possible for people who work with knowledge and concepts to work anytime and anywhere. We’re living during a period that is experiencing a massive redefinition and practice of work since the Industrial Revolution. Like all revolutions, outdated beliefs, practices and ideas are ruthlessly exposed and discarded.

 

Yet, technological advances are never neutral. There are always positive and negative impacts in the disruptions they cause. In times of such change and uncertainty, unprecedented opportunity arises to reimagine and redesign how we as a society do things. Right now, with the coronavirus tearing through our global society, remote work has become the launching pad to view our society in the future. The constant growth of faster data networks, cloud software systems and exponentially more powerful hardware is what makes this discussion possible. Unfortunately, technology alone is not enough.

 

Organizations and how we work are fundamentally human systems. The integration of technology with human systems needs to be carefully considered and designed with research-based science about people, rather than just anecdotal experience based platitudes. As much as we design fantastic user experiences on an app, they’re just merely pixels on a screen. Organizations and employees need an updated perspective and skillset that are essential for this new way of working. Working remotely will be at the center of our future economy, and it demands that we innovate today.

It’s absurd that such an important aspect of our lives relies on the outdated ideas, practices and opinions of a bygone era.

A Blast from the Past

People don’t realize that many of our “best practices”, ideas and assessments about work, teams, culture, personality, motivation and employee engagement date back to the 1920’s, 1930’s, 1950’s and 1970’s. It’s absurd that such an important aspect of our lives relies on the outdated ideas, practices and opinions of a bygone era. Today, many researchers that use science to back their understanding of organizational psychology and human personality have invalidated many of the old tropes companies still hold on to. The Myers Briggs personality assessment is but one example of an assessment that has no real research or accuracy behind it [1]. Trying to update outdated approaches like the Myers Briggs doesn’t address the fact that they were never rooted in psychology research to begin with. The crisis in human resources is being exposed by the ongoing modernization and change of our society. How do we manage these changes so that it works for both organizations and employees?

 

Many businesses and senior leaders have been hesitant to move towards a distributed workforce or offer remote work options. It’s because of a general suspicion about human nature. If people are not in the office, it means they aren’t really working. Hobbies, children, errands, television, sex, and video games are perceived to be too alluring. The common belief is that employees need negative pressure to achieve higher performance. The image of a hard-nosed football coach trying to motivate the team comes to mind. Employees will not produce high quality work, deliver on deadlines, put in the hours, or stay focused unless they are in the office. The list goes on. Contrary to the fear that employees take advantage of remote work, data suggests that employees can be more productive [2] and responsible with their time [3]. With the right technologies specifically designed for the new normal of remote working, software applications can track and manage increases in productivity and employees can also develop their careers and be upskilled using the same system. This creates the opportunity for technology to align the objectives of organizations, managers, and employees under a unified solution.

How do we create a system optimized for remote work that also meets our desired business objectives? We start by structuring the work environment based upon insights from personality research.

It leaves me speechless when I hear that large organizations continue to rely on the Myers Briggs to evaluate employees in the workplace when so much is at stake.

Using What We've Learned About Personality

At the core of workforce development is the need to understand and leverage each employee’s unique personality. Imagine a hundred years ago before the time of modern, science-based medicine. We didn’t know much about human anatomy and we tended to treat every patient the same. That sameness was constructed by mostly male doctors and their mostly male research base. When the medical community realized there was a bias towards a certain kind of masculine patient, new research branched out to address the physiological, biochemistry, and genetic differences present in each of us. Today, we have specialized treatments based on our unique genetic makeup. Businesses also tend to treat people like we’re all the same. It was assumed that hard work, perseverance, and desire were the foundations of a great career. We believed that anyone could do anything. Leaders are made, not born was the mantra of the day. But research shows that it is much more nuanced that this. We are all uniquely hardwired, and part of this hardwiring is our personality.

As former research academics, we understand the need to be cautious. Personality research has matured over the past century, and in a globalized, diverse, and modern society, we look for a variety of qualities when evaluating the kinds of assessments we use with our clients. First, it must be based on the most current and best quality research and theory. Next, there must exist a broad body of peer reviewed research, experimentation, and validation for that kind of assessment. Last, the assessment tool must be accurate in what it measures. It’s well known and broadly written about that the Myers Briggs personality assessment fails in all three of these accounts. And it leaves me speechless when I hear that large organizations continue to rely on the Myers Briggs to evaluate employees in the workplace when so much is at stake.

Is there a research-based, broadly accepted assessment that delivers an understanding of what personality is, what dimensions constitute it, and what produces personality? It’s called the Big Five Personality Assessment, which analyzes someone’s personality along the five dimensions of Openness, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Extraversion, and Neuroticism. Research has shown that we now know how personality is shaped by our neurobiology and becomes stables around our mid-twenties as our brains develop and mature.

The goal is for our work duties and career path to match our hardwiring.

Using the Big 5 Personality Assessment
  • Our natural inclinations towards stress and emotional resilience is measured within the N dimension of Neuroticism.

  • How our brains process sensory stimulation and recharge is measured by the E dimension of Extraversion.

  • Whether we are out of the box creative and strategic or we value stability, routine and details is measured by the O dimension of Openness.

  • How you display trust, altruism, kindness, affection and compassion is measured by the A dimension of Agreeableness.

  • And finally, if you have a lot internal discipline around organization, focus or methodical or are more flexible, can shift tasks more easily and work in less organized environments is measured by the C dimension of Conscientiousness.

 

The goal is for our work duties and career path to match our hardwiring. In doing so, we create a sustainable system that allows us to develop ourselves in parallel with our hardwiring.

With so much content these days around personal development, growth and transformation, why would we want to give in to the concept of our personalities as being hardwired? The answer is Stress. Stress sensitivity is important for our society, and workplace stress disorders are at an all-time high. No amount of free company gym memberships, a fully stocked espresso bar, or mindfulness will make up for this. Each one of us are different in our sensitivity and response to stress. This dimension is subconscious and is tied to our fight and flight response, which is our sympathetic nervous system. We can’t work on it or change it. So rather than trying to worry less, it is better to change the part of our work/life that leads to worry. For example, exercise burns off about 1,500 stress chemicals in our system, and a good night’s sleep washes those stress compounds from our brains. We should strive to create an environment for working that helps us reduce our stress and work at a higher level of engagement.

Creating work environments to nurture our personalities and foster our sensibilities would lead to greater productivity and higher engagement. Introverts, extroverts, and ambiverts all have differing amounts of sensory stimulation need throughout the day. Light, color, sound, smell, and motion are just some of the things that introverts, extroverts and ambiverts respond differently to. The intent is to create an environment most suited to each person’s brain naturally functions. In doing so, we’re helping to create a sustainable environment where we’ll have more energy and feel better at the end of the day. An introvert would seek to create an environment that moderates light and noise. Extroverts need more consistent stimulation in their environment. Ambiverts, who make up approximately 40% of the population, prefer to cycle between low, moderate, and high stimulation throughout the day. If your environment is opposite of what your personality is hardwired to be, then your brain is working harder than necessary and is burning off biochemical resources at a greater rate, which can quickly leave you at a deficit. The result is tiredness and if prolonged, burnout. These dimensions goes a long way in explaining why the open office concept, and it’s moderate amount of stimulation was a poor idea and has ultimately failed.

Creating Environments that Work for Us

It’s clear that our environment matters a great deal. And while these examples provide a glimpse into how we can craft our work environments to better suite remote work, inclusivity, engagement, and career development, we also want to mention that people vary considerably in way we are structured to work. Some have a strong internal locus of control, which means that they are naturally more self-disciplined. Others have an external locus of control, which means that they are more flexible, spontaneous, able to shift between tasks more easily, and less driven by lists or plans. For those with a higher locus of control, working remotely will find it easier. For those with a lower locus of control, they may need external support in the form of greater clarity in specific projects, outcomes, and deadlines.

So how do we take advantage of our dimensions of personality to benefit career development? We start by owning our personalities and then structuring our work environment to help us be more productive and enjoy work more. Integrating work back into our private life is a valuable investment down the road. If we can pay attention to what energizes us, and manage for what drains us, we’ll have created a sustainable path to career development.

When unforeseen global circumstances such as the coronavirus disrupts such a huge part of our daily lives and economy, our workforce is at the mercy of the knock-on effects. In the face of government mandated isolation for extended periods of time, many of us have asked if it’s possible that the majority of our workforce transition permanently to working remote? How will managers evaluate the growth and development of their team? How will training and upskilling proceed? How will employees receive fair reviews when much of 2020 was spent in isolation?

These and many other questions raised can thankfully be addressed by technology that’s already available to us. We at Motis have created a cloud-based application called Motis Grow that brings together learning, skills/competency development and performance management into one system. Motis Grow tracks progress and milestones for employees for upskilling and provides an easy way for managers to connect with their team. Motis Grow also standardizes a person’s work history so that they can take it with them wherever they go. These are ways Motis Grow actively provides workforce solutions to a changing business world. And it’s because we come from a background of academic research in organizational psychology and career development that we understand the science behind how people grow and develop their careers.

We hope that more organizations, managers, and business leaders begin to see the ways in which we can build workplace environments and structures that harmonize with how employees are hardwired to create a path towards sustainable, modern, and equitable career development.

 

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