Since the COVID-19 pandemic, remote working and virtual employment have been on the rise. Employees around the world have developed a preference for virtual employment, leading some businesses to adopt hybrid or completely virtual employment models. However, as businesses transition to a more virtual employment model, employers are increasingly concerned about the personality traits that indicate success for remote work employees. This insight article aims to answer two questions: what traits do businesses need to look for as they hire new virtual employees? And, what personality traits are most likely to succeed with virtual employment?
Below you will find our scientific research analysis of the The Big Five’s personality traits and how they influence the performance of virtual employees. Along with the research analysis of each trait, you will find three questions to consider if you are an executive coach working with executives or a business leader seeking to hire new virtual employees. Join us as we develop our understanding of the personality traits that are most successful in virtual employment and how you can use these principles in your business today.
The Big Five Personality Traits Model
The Big Five Personality Traits Model is considered to be the most “widely accepted personality theory held by psychologists today” (Lim, 2020). It focuses on five distinct categories of traits:
Openness: willingness to try new experiences
Conscientiousness: ability to be self-disciplined
Extraversion: desiring the company of others
Agreeableness: level of cooperativeness and compassion
Neuroticism: prone to anxiety or other negative emotions (Lim, 2020 & Boundless, n.d.)
This model of personality traits measures the presence of these five categories on a “spectrum.” For example, an individual could score moderately high for openness, meaning that they prefer spontaneous action most of the time, while another individual could score very low for openness and prefer a strict routine or schedule. Consider the graphic below as an example of a potential Big Five Model score.
Support for the Big Five Model
Due to the intricate nature of personality and the varying differences between cultures and individuals, the Big Five Model has been questioned in regards to its ability to measure the entire span of an individual’s personality (Lim, 2020).
When hiring new employees or assessing the traits of executives, employers and executive coaches often focus on the traits that are most correlated with corporate success; not the intricate details of the applicant’s personality. Because of this, the Big Five Model is a valuable tool when assessing what characteristics are most important for virtual employment success.
The Big Five Model has been used in various research articles to predict the future success of individuals. For example, research has identified correlations between Big Five Traits such as conscientiousness and agreeableness with career success “across many jobs” (Sackett & Walmsley, 2014, Nießen et al., 2020).
The following sections dissect each trait’s relationship to virtual employment with supporting research.
Personality traits to look for when hiring remote employees
Trait #1: high levels of openness (a willingness to try new things)
As companies further develop their virtual employment strategies, it is important to consider the traits of those who are most likely to accept virtual employment readily. Research shows that those with more openness to experience were more open to virtual employment (Luse et al, 2013).
Researchers also state that “open individuals may perceive virtual team environments as a way to explore new ideas within a nontraditional team environment” increasing the ease of transition from traditional employment to virtual employment (Luse et al., 2013).
This is an important trait to consider when creating virtual employment strategies within a corporation. When employers select which employees to transition to virtual or hybrid employment versus traditional employment, it is important to consider how “open” these employees might be to the transition.
A lack of openness to virtual employment or returning to the traditional workforce can make the transition challenging for employees and the employer. If disgruntled enough, employees can seek other opportunities for employment, ultimately affecting the productivity of a corporation.
Executive coaches should also consider their client’s openness to virtual employment management. If the executive of a corporation isn’t open to virtual employment, coaches can then begin the process of identifying how this could impact an executive’s business with their client.
When hiring new virtual employees, it is important to analyze their openness to experience because this also addresses their ability to adapt to change. Because the virtual employment policies of many corporations are adapting and changing as new research and knowledge become available, employees must be open to adjusting their duties as needed.
Questions to consider when addressing openness
How do you feel when corporate policies that affect your job change?
Are you open to trying new communication platforms or programs?
How well do you adapt to new technology?
Trait #2: high levels of conscientiousness (self-disciplined character)
Conscientiousness has been identified by many researchers as a key trait for success (Nießen et al., 2020, Sackett & Walmsley, 2014, Wilmot & Ones, 2019). This remains true for virtual employees. In a qualitative research study, virtual employees reportedly had a significantly higher amount of conscientiousness. MacRae and Sawatzky attribute this difference to understanding that conscientious individuals “tend to be more self-motivated and able to manage their own schedules and deadlines independently” which is key to virtual employment success (2020).
One of the central differentiating factors between traditional and virtual employment is the availability of oversight. Virtual employees in many organizations are able to create their own schedules and function without the presence of a manager or supervisor. Traditional employees are assigned a specific schedule and under the supervision of other corporate employees. The increased liberties afforded by virtual employment increase the need for self-discipline and organization (Lim, 2020). Business leaders must consider this increased need for conscientiousness and self-discipline when hiring new virtual employees or creating virtual training programs. Supporting employee’s sense of conscientiousness can be beneficial for the productivity of employees, which in turn supports the productivity of a business. Furthermore, executive coaches can also encourage their executives to invest in conscientiousness development. Encouraging executives to invest in their own ability to be “self-motivated” as well as their employees, can greatly benefit the productivity of their businesses when transitioning to virtual employment (MacRae & Sawatzky, 2020).
Questions to consider when addressing conscientiousness
Can you share an example of a time you showed self-discipline?
How do you organize your work schedule?
Do you feel that you are able to function effectively on your own?
Trait #3: different levels of extroversion (high levels for virtual group work, low levels for individual virtual work)
Current research shows that extraversion and introversion traits affect individuals’ preferences for virtual employment. Researcher Andy Luse states that extroverted individuals, “much rather work face-to-face as compared to virtually” as they are energized by personal interactions (Jarrett, 2020). However, this does not indicate that extroverted people cannot be successful in virtual environments. Despite their levels of introversion or extroversion, openness to the new experience of virtual employment has a greater influence on their ability to succeed in virtual employment (Jarrett, 2020).
The key difference between those who are more extroverted than those who are introverted in the online workplace is that those with an extroverted personality tend to prefer virtual teamwork, while those who are considerably introverted tend to prefer individual virtual employment (Luse et al., 2013). Because of this, it is important to consider the nature of your virtual employment when hiring new virtual employees. If you are hiring for a position that is rooted in virtual group work, you should take into consideration the rates of extroversion of job candidates. Likewise, if the position included mostly individual work, take into consideration the ability of candidates to feel comfortable working alone.
When working with clients who are experiencing difficulties adjusting their businesses to accommodate virtual employment, it is important for executive coaches to remind business leaders of these distinct differences in the personality of their workforce. Doing so can help business leaders create more effective strategies that accommodate both the extrovert and introvert.
Questions to consider when addressing extroversion/introversion
Do you prefer teamwork or individual work?
Do you enjoy working with a team of individuals or do you find that stressful?
Do you feel that your employees are more likely to be introverted or extroverted?
Trait #4: different levels of agreeableness (low levels benefit virtual group work, high levels benefit virtual employment overall)
For virtual employment opportunities that have a large amount of virtual teamwork, agreeableness might not be a desirable trait according to research done by William Swart and Judy A. Siguaw (2020). When studying students who underwent an intense course of virtual teamwork, they found that students’ levels of agreeableness decreased during the span of the study. They attributed this to the need to collaborate and share ideas virtually (Swart & Siguaw 2020).
It’s important to note that agreeableness is not simply the ability to get along with others but instead is the tendency to trust and follow others’ ideas (Lim, 2020). Agreeable individuals are more likely to disregard their own ideas and insights in order to follow other group members’ ideas. Swart and Siguaw quote several articles in their research to support their claim that agreeableness is actually not beneficial to teamwork (2020).
These insights indicate that when hiring for virtual employment positions that require a great deal of virtual teamwork, it might be best to develop teams with individuals that have a low ratio of agreeableness, who are more likely to contribute their own ideas, and who are unafraid to propose opposing ideas to the group. Business leaders should remember this when hiring new virtual employees for positions that involve lots of teamwork. If you only hire those with a high sense of agreeableness, the team might not brainstorm or share ideas effectively. Furthermore, executive coaches should consider this when creating virtual peer groups. Having executives in your coaching groups that are not afraid to speak their mind and disagree with others can push forward the conversation and help the group develop deeper understandings.
Although lower levels of agreeableness are helpful when working in groups virtually, having a higher ratio of agreeableness can also help virtual employees. When virtual employees are working primarily on their own, and only occasionally work directly with other employees, agreeableness can help them take constructive criticism of their work better over email than those with lower levels of agreeableness (Clark, Karau, & Michalisin, 2012). This can reduce the amount of stress and conflict within a virtual organization.
Questions to consider when addressing agreeableness
How likely are you to share your ideas, even if they are different from others?
Do you consider yourself a follower or a leader?
How likely are you to confront others’ ideas if you disagree with them?
Trait #5: high levels of neuroticism (increased likelihood of anxiety and other unlikely emotions)
Neuroticism is related to emotional instability. Those with a higher ratio of neuroticism are more likely to be stressed, depressed, or worried about difficulties. Research shows that those with higher levels of neuroticism have more favorable attitudes towards virtual employment (Clark et al., 2012). Researchers suggest that this is because virtual employment can “provide shelter from interpersonal anxieties that might be experienced in the
traditional, face-to-face office environment” (Clark et al., 2012).
While it may be assumed that neuroticism should be avoided, it is important to note that it can be beneficial. Stress often encourages people to meet deadlines and achieve goals. In fact, Arlin Cuncic author of “7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety” states that those with high functioning anxiety (closely related to neuroticism) can have a “seemingly perfect exterior” in their professional lives due to their pursuit of perfection and fear of failure (2020). Giving these individuals who have a high ratio of neuroticism the opportunity of remote employment allows them to work successfully from home without additional stressors from social and commuting situations.
Therefore, when hiring individuals for virtual employment, you shouldn’t be too concerned with high ratios of neuroticism. Instead, focus on how the employment best suits them as a whole individual and listen to their reasons for preferring virtual employment. Most importantly, executive coaches who understand neuroticism or anxiety can encourage business leaders to offer virtual employment opportunities to increase the effectiveness of employees with a high ratio of neuroticism or anxiety.
Questions to consider when addressing Neuroticism
Would you say you are more stressed than the average individual?
What about virtual employment suits your personality?
How often do you worry about things out of your control?
Other important traits
Although the Big Five Personality Trait index is a valuable and scientifically proven tool for personality assessment, there are other characteristics that can be helpful for remote employers as well.
Related to the personality trait of conscientiousness, honesty is also important for remote employees. Research shows that those with higher rates of conscientiousness are more likely to be honest (Horn, Nelson, & Brannick, 2004). Honesty is a vital part of remote employment because of the increasing trend of over-employment. This trend involves remote employees manipulating their employers into thinking that they are working for them full time, only working part-time—doing the minimal work possible, and taking on a second, or even third job. Honest employees are less likely to manipulate their employees in this wasteful and deceitful practice. For more information on this increasingly manipulative trend, read our insight article on over employment here.
Due to the nature of virtual employment, virtual employees need to be able to communicate effectively over email, Zoom, and other virtual platforms. This skill can help employees keep their managers and bosses in the loop on their project completion and productivity (Parris, n.d.).
Because managers and co-workers may not be readily available to help employees when they face technical issues, it is important for remote employees to have the ability to solve their own problems. Problem-solving skills can prevent standstills in employee productivity that can occur due to technical issues (YEC, 2018).
The main takeaways
According to the research above, the Big Five Personality Traits relate to virtual employment as follows:
Openness to new experiences directly supports an employee’s transition to virtual employment as it encourages employees to be open to the new opportunities that are available via virtual employment.
Conscientiousness, or the ability to be self-disciplined, is vital to the virtual workforce, as it enables employees to work on their own without the direct supervision provided by traditional employment.
Extroverted employees are likely to prefer face-to-face employment when possible. However, if virtual employment is necessary, extroverted individuals particularly enjoy working in groups virtually. Individuals with lower levels of extroversion thrive in remote work that is individualized without much group involvement.
Agreeableness is not beneficial to virtual teamwork but can be beneficial when working independently.
Virtual employment offers those with high ratios of neuroticism the opportunity to excel without the additional stressors of the face-to-face employment.
Business leaders and executive coaches should consider these insights when confronting the challenges of the newly developing virtual workplace. Understanding how different personalities are expected to react to virtual employment gives business leaders the opportunity to address these personality differences when creating virtual employment policies and hiring virtual employees. Executive coaches can also use these insights when coaching their clients. Understanding the varying personalities that executives have can better help executive coaches guide their clients to a greater understanding of their own situations.