Remote Workers Are Not Remotely the Same

By Robert Hogan, Ph.D.

Organizational experts have been praising the benefits of the virtual office as well as the virtual organization, for years. Now, with Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) beginning to replace traditional phone lines, the concept of a dispersed workforce is becoming a reality in the contact center industry. Embracing technology in order to serve customers and enhance the bottom line is natural, but we must be mindful of one of the oldest problems in business and industry: how does technology affect the people on the job?

Working remotely is not the same as working in a group.  In an industry rightly concerned about employee churn and customer service, the differences are important. For that reason, some understanding of personality and individual differences is also important. Here are the basics.

All-important human characteristics are normally distributed – it is called “the rule of the bell curve.” What this means is that factors such as height, weight, visual acuity, dancing ability, or talent for leadership are all distributed so that some people have a lot of it, some have a little bit of it, and most people are in the middle. Personality characteristics are distributed in the same way.

By personality, we mean the individual differences in peoples’ outward social behavior that we can see; we do not mean dark, unconscious psychic forces that control peoples’ behavior outside of their awareness. Personality researchers over the past 15 years have arrived at a consensus, known as the “Big Five” theory that says normal personality can be classified and understood in terms of the following five broad dimensions of individual differences in observable social behavior.

  1. Some people are sociable and outgoing, like meetings and prefer to work as part of a team; others are shy and retiring and prefer to work alone.
  2. Some people are sunny and cheerful; others are dour and grumpy
  3. Some people are well organized, self-disciplined, and hard working; others are disorganized, impulsive, and distractible.
  4. Some people are calm, placid, and emotionally stable; others are easily upset and hard to soothe.
  5. Some people are curious, imaginative and need a lot of stimulation; others are practical, focused, and resistant to boredom.

Not all five dimensions will always apply to all jobs, but with these descriptions in mind, we can also ask about the requirements of a job. Does it require:

  • Extended social interaction with strangers?
  • Customer service skills?
  • Self-discipline and self-starting tendencies?
  • The ability to handle pressure and stress?
  • The capacity to tolerate boredom?

After answering these questions, it becomes a relatively straightforward task to match the requirements of a job with the characteristics of those who fill it. Industrial psychologists have been using this model with good results for 15 years and it directly applies to the question of how to select call center agents who can function on their own at home, as opposed to needing to work in the traditional contact center environment.

People who can work well on their own have three important characteristics. First, they should be introverted – shy, retiring, reserved – and not need a lot of social interaction. Second, they should be conscientious, self-disciplined, and self-starting/self-managing. And third – although it may sound contradictory to the established business model – they should be relatively lacking in ambition. They should have few aspirations about rising in the organization because working alone may remove them from the political loop necessary to advance their careers.

By comparison, people who function best in a group or team environment, such as a contact center, are extraverted – they need and enjoy the company of others. Second, they are cheerful and easy to deal with – good team players. Third, they are calm and stable as opposed to moody and emotional. The latter two characteristics make them rewarding to deal with. Of course, we’ve all known extraverted people who are also obnoxious and unpleasant to be around, but the larger point is that people who work well off site are quite different from people who work well on site and you need to be able to tell them apart before you invest in hiring and training.

How to tell them apartis the question. Despite the availability of well validated and successful methods for aligning people with jobs based on the personality  factors described above, many organizations depend solely upon personal interviews, which is risky at best. For example, long-distance truck drivers, who are always in high demand, need to be introverted, rule following, and tolerant of boredom. But such people may not interview well. Recruiters, who are typically extraverted and impulsive, often tend to recruit extraverted and impulsive people into the job of long-distance driver; the results are poor performance and high turnover. That, of course, is exactly what you want to avoid as you transition to agents who must like to work on their own.

Growing numbers of employers, including large government agencies, most of the Fortune 100, and thousands of companies around the world, are relying on tests that match the personal traits of applicants against the job requirements before they are interviewed. Sophisticated assessments can be tailored to specific employer needs, such as honesty, security, or safety. For a contact center employee search, they can identify individuals who are productive self-starters with the personal discipline to work alone and be comfortable doing so without frequent oversight and feedback – and who will treat the client’s secure information as they would their own.

Just as employees who work best alone and those who thrive in social environments are different, pre-employment assessments are not all the same. An objective evaluation process is essential to ensure the assessment provider meets statistical, ethical, and industry standards and that their tests have been validated and the results published in respected journals.

You have embraced the latest technology to put your contact center on the cutting edge, but the agent – at home or in an office – is still the main key to success. For the benefit of your clients, their callers, and your company, it makes sense to adopt the latest methods to match people and jobs as you select agents for a dispersed workforce.

Robert Hogan, Ph.D., president of Hogan Assessment Systems, is an international authority on personality assessment, leadership, and organizational effectiveness.

[From Connection Magazine March 2005]

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