Social Distancing and Personalities: What HR Needs to Know

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Mar 27, 2020
This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.

At the moment of writing, there were over 68,000 cases of the COVID-19 virus reported in the USA, with the states of New York, Washington, and California especially hard hit. By the time you read this, there will likely be many more. My own organization is headquartered in Santa Clara County, California, one of several jurisdictions that have instigated a shelter in place order; everyone has to go home and stay home. There will soon be more people working from home than ever before, and this new reality brings with it a novel set of challenges for employees, managers, and human resources professionals.

For many, remote working may seem to be nothing new. However, the current crisis is very different. If an individual decides for themself to work from home for a few days, or even chooses to become a home-based worker for the longer term, then that is, generally, their decision. Suddenly being forced to work from home, having that choice taken away, is entirely different. Remote working is already stressful for some personality types, with the danger that people are put in a position where they are ‘always-on,’ unable to keep work and home separate. Add to this a situation where home working has been suddenly imposed, where social contacts have been curtailed, where bars, restaurants, and cinemas are closed and where it is very unclear how long this will all last. It’s no surprise that some are finding it difficult to cope.

Personality type shapes our approach to ‘social distancing’

The way that we react to this crisis and the strategies we find effective are likely to relate to our personality. Social media has already picked up on this, with many seeing a link between social distancing and Introversion. As many tweets have put it, “I’ve been practicing #socialdistancing for most of my life.” But knowing the ways in which different personality preferences relate to home working goes beyond Twitter memes to allow workers to adapt to the new reality, and creates a framework by which HR professionals can help them to do this.

One of the most popular ways of describing personality is the type approach, as used by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) assessment (disclosure: my company distributes this assessment). This looks at four areas of personality: whether we prefer to focus our attention on the outside world (Extraversion), or on our inner world of thoughts and feelings (Introversion); whether we prefer to deal with detailed, concrete information (Sensing, S) or the big picture (Intuition); whether we prefer to make decisions on the basis of objective logic (Thinking) or on the basis of our values and how people will be affected (Feeling); and whether we prefer to live our lives in an ordered, structured way (Judging) or in a more open, spontaneous way (Perceiving). Individuals who know their MBTI personality type can use the framework to help them adapt more successfully to home working, and HR practitioners can facilitate this process. Here are some hints and tips for each type:

Introversion vs. Extraversion

Extraverts prefer a busy, lively environment with lots of opportunities for interaction, which may be difficult to achieve at home. It will be important for them to be able to communicate frequently with others, so make online tools such as Skype easily available and schedule regular informal meetings and remote get-togethers. They should take regular breaks and think of ways to make their home environment more stimulating, playing music, for example. It may also be useful to plan particular timeslots, free of distractions, for focused work.

Introverts enjoy a calm, peaceful environment and might initially enjoy working from home provided that there are not too many others, including children, around as well. They do, however, need to remember to stop work periodically; deep focus is not possible all the time. It is also important that they do not forget to engage and communicate with their colleagues, especially those with preferences for Extraversion. And their colleagues should remember to include them.

Sensing vs. Intuition

Those with a Sensing preference may find themselves becoming obsessed with the details of their work, or the physical aspects of their workspace, or worrying obsessively about missing exercise, or snacking far too much. Maintaining contact with others is a good way to keep in touch with the real world. For those with an Intuition preference, the temptation is to over-complicate things; getting together (virtually) with someone with a Sensing preference may help to bring them back down to earth provided that both parties have an intention to be constructive.

Thinking vs. Feeling

Stripped of the usual social cues, the online communication of Thinking individuals can be very direct and task-focused, with terse, impersonal emails, for example. Remembering that the social niceties are still important can improve the way they communicate with those with a Feeling preference and reduce stress and misunderstanding for both.

Judging vs. Perceiving

People with a Judging preference enjoy a planned, organized life and may be particularly unsettled by the imposed change of suddenly working from home. It will be useful for them to get into a new routine as soon as they can, and important for organizations to facilitate this. Setting clear goals at the start of each day will be useful, as will setting boundaries around working hours; it can be harder to finish work when there is no-one else leaving the office at the same time.

People with a Perceiving preference may enjoy some aspects of working from home, such as the freedom to be flexible around hours. If you can go out in the sunshine during the day, but then finish your work assignment at 2 am, why not? They may, however, wish to utilize timers on email software so that anything sent after working hours is not delivered to their colleagues’ in-boxes till the next morning. Keeping sight of overall deadlines, while moving between projects to maintain variety, can help keep these individuals fresh. Informal virtual meetings and get-togethers that also have the character of ‘playing’ can also be useful.

A final word on change management

The organizations that will survive Covid-19 are those that can withstand change – and who understand how this change is affecting their employees. By taking the time to understand how their people work, in their offices and at home, and how they relate to others, employers can equip their workforce with the tools required to manage stress, remain engaged, and be productive through this crisis.

We are in this for the long haul; we need to understand each other to make it out the other end.

This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.