Many U.S. employees believe working from home — or at least away from the office — can bring freedom and stress-free job satisfaction. But recent research I conducted with Drs. Cristina Rubino and Emily Hunter says, “Not so fast.”
Our study, published recently in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, examines the impact of remote work on employee well-being and offers several strategies to help managers provide remote-work opportunities that are valuable to the employee and the company.
We studied a total of 403 working adults in two separate studies. We measured each employee’s autonomy (the level of a worker’s independence), strain (defined in this study as exhaustion, disengagement and dissatisfaction) and emotional stability.
Emotional stability captures how even-keeled someone is or, on the opposite end, how malleable their emotions are. An example would be if something stressful happens at work, a person who is high on emotional stability would take it in stride, remain positive and figure out how to address it. A person low on emotional stability might get frustrated and discouraged, expending energy with those emotions instead of on the issue at hand.
In short, our research found that:
• Autonomy is critical to protecting remote employees’ well-being and helping them avoid strain.
• Employees reporting high levels of autonomy and emotional stability appear to be the most able to thrive in remote-work positions.
• Employees reporting high levels of job autonomy with lower levels of emotional stability appear to be more susceptible to strain.
Interestingly, this work contradicts past research that says autonomy is a universal need that everyone possesses. Per our findings, those employees who are lower in emotional stability may not need or want as much autonomy in their work. This lower need for autonomy may explain why less emotionally stable employees don’t do as well when working remotely, even when they have autonomy.
My research team and I offer several recommendations for managers who design or oversee remote-work arrangements.
Most importantly, I would suggest managers look at employee behaviors, rather than for personality traits, per se, when deciding who should work remotely. For example, if someone does not handle stress well in the office, they are not likely to handle it well at home either. If someone gets overwhelmed easily, or reacts in big ways to requests or issues in the office, they are likely less well-positioned to work remotely and handle that responsibility and stress.
However, if less emotionally stable individuals must work remotely, managers should take care to provide more resources, other than autonomy, including support to help foster strong relationships with co-workers and avoid strain. Managers should also consider providing proper training and equipment for remote work, including proper separation of work and family spaces, clear procedural and performance expectations and regular contact (virtual or face-to-face) with co-workers and managers.
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