I’m a big fan of working from home. But not everybody is. I’ve had many discussions about this, and some of what I heard might surprise you.
The Big 5
I think everybody knows what ‘working from home’ is, unless you’ve lived under a very big rock. I’ve written about it before, but there’s always more to discuss.
The ‘big 5’, which is in the title of this post, refers to the big 5 personality traits. Those are the five big personality traits that determine what kind of a person you are. Of course, this is a generalization, and each person is unique. However, you can measure certain aspects of their personality and use that to infer other things. The big 5 have been repeatedly found by scientists, but like any theory, there are shortcomings and opponents, and like many things in psychology, falsifiability is problematic.
So, what are they? From Wikipedia:
- Conscientiousness – efficient/organized vs. extravagant/careless
- Agreeableness – friendly/compassionate vs. critical/rational
- Neuroticism – sensitive/nervous vs. resilient/confident
- Openness to experience – inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious
- Extraversion – outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved
Every person can score differently on these scales. You might think five is a pretty small number, but if you were to only differentiate between people scoring high or low on these five, you’d get 2^5 combinations. In other words, if you turn this scale binary, you get 32 different types of people. And reality is, of course, not binary, meaning there are infinitely more variants.
I myself score relatively close to the center of these scales. I’m a bit of an introvert, but I like to be around people too. I like new experiences, but I also love my comfort zone. And most people will not score at the extremes of these scales, or only score extreme on one of them.
Working from Home
You can guess where I’m going with this. It isn’t a stretch to posit a relation between where you fall on the big 5 scales, and your appreciation of working from home. And there is.
To summarize the finds from the linked article: there’s a strong correlation between extraversion / conscientiousness and working from home performance. There are weaker links between neuroticism / openness and working from home performance. And there’s no significant correlation with agreeableness.
I think it’s no surprise to anybody that introverted people do better working at home, while extroverts do better in the office. But it’s always good when somebody actually comes up with data to back that assumption up. But the other correlations are interesting too.
Being conscientiousness, in other words organized and efficient, is a clear indicator of work-at-home performance. Interestingly, that was already the case in the office, but less pronounced. That actually makes sense. In the office, managers and co-workers can keep careless and easily distracted people in line, but at home they have to do that themselves. Unfortunately, they’re not good at that.
The link with neuroticism is weaker, but present. Apparently, you need to be more emotionally stable to deal with working from home, because you have less support. Openness to experience is also an indicator, probably because the shift in way of working was a big change. That does make me wonder if these two correlation will still be there a few years from now, when working from home has found its place in society.
The Extraversion bias
So, where does this leave us? Well, one of the things I see in discussions is that both introverts and extroverts have trouble seeing the other side’s view. I think there are several reasons for this.
Extraversion has traditionally been seen as the ‘better’ of the two ends of the spectrum. Children are taught to speak up. Shyness is treated like an affliction we need to solve. I broke off contact with friends from university because they only ever wanted to go ‘clubbing’ and made it clear I was a stick-in-the-mud to them for not wanting to go out all the time. This privileged position of extraverts means its easy to dismiss the desire to work from home as a weakness.
Working from home was not possible for office jobs until recently. You had to go to the office, so introverts had no choice but to adept. Managers tend to be extraverts, and combined with the idea that extraversion is ‘better’, this has led to travesties such as open-plan offices. Extraverts have been in charge of office life for decades, and has catered to extraverts, which in turn has made extraverts perform better and strengthening their grip on the office space. In short: the office was made by extraverts, for extraverts.
The pandemic was a rude awakening.
The way forward
And, though this may surprise you, I like working from home, but I think we all need to go to the office regularly. When you work closely with people, it’s good for the social coherence to see each other physically. And, while I have over two decades of working experience, others don’t. People fresh from school need to learn, and being close together helps them to learn — although, you can also say people fresh out of school have not yet been indoctrinated by the mind-killing-office-cult yet.
I think the way forward is to acknowledge that both loving work-from-home and loving work-in-office are valid. Some people thrive in at home, while others thrive in an office. Most people who love to work from home are not actual recluses. I like seeing my colleagues face to face, just not all the time. One day a week in the office is enough for me. But, I understand some people like to be there two, three or five days a week. That’s all fine, just don’t try to force us all back into those straight-jacket one-size-fits-all rules.
Although, yeah, some people do need to be forced to the office. They don’t perform well when they have to organize their own work. For example because of that pesky conscientiousness trait. Yes, people who are not good at organizing their own work also perform worse at the office, but they do perform better in the office than at home. Introverts with poor organizational skills should be in the office more. Or they need to be managed more thoroughly remotely. The same goes for people just starting out.
There’s a strong link between certain personality types and performance when working from home. We need to acknowledge that. Moreover, we need to break through the bias toward extraversion.
If we can get past that, and see working-from-home and working-at-the-office as a spectrum where most of the spectrum is valid, even if not always practical, we can come to workable agreements on how to move forward.