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Is There a Virtual Worker Personality?


Research says yes—but it's not the introverts who thrive working remotely, as you might think

For years the workplace commentariat has been nattering on about the no-collar workplace, in which technology would turn the globe into one giant Wi-Fi-enabled kibbutz. A post-face-time world where everybody can TiVo their work.

But there's a growing awareness, buttressed by new research, that working remotely is a more nuanced affair. Some people are simply not wired for the life of the digital nomad. What is to some a broadband paradise is to others an exercise in alienation. "If I work at home for more than two days, I feel a bit isolated," says Cisco Systems (CSCO) European Marketing Manager Tim Stone. "I tend to go to the office a couple of days a week just to have human interaction."

Three years ago, Stone, along with a group of other Cisco executives, hired the British consultancy Pearn Kandola to help Cisco and its clients better understand the psychological issues at play in mobile work. Pearn Kandola's chief researcher, Stuart Duff, led a team that studied hundreds of workers at Cisco and at other companies worldwide.

Duff assumed it would be the quants, introverts, and reclusive types who would thrive in a virtual work situation. After all, they're the ones who keep their heads burrowed in their cubicles. But it turns out it's the extroverts—the office gabbers, the life of the break-room party—who thrive in the land of virtual work. Left on their own, these types of employees are the ones who work closely with clients, chum around with colleagues, and talk it up with bosses. They stay connected no matter where they are.

Shy, disorganized types are better kept in-house. The office environment is more forgiving of the scatterbrained; its structures help provide external reinforcement—as in your comrade popping his head into your office to remind you that you are late for the meeting (again). There's also something to be said for the social interactions of an office environment. It doesn't require much to keep up basic relationships when you are physically at work.

Duff also thought that mobile workers would tend to be seat-of-the-pants types. Again, the opposite turned out to be true. "Mobile workers are far more organized, personally, than their office-bound counterparts," he says. "They have to be on top of their game the whole time."

Now executives like Stone are rethinking virtual best practices. In light of Duff's research, Stone, whose direct reports are scattered across the globe, is having more face-to-face contact with introverted types, or buddying them up with execs in the same geographic area. For some virtual workers, the key to being productive may be creating an office-like environment in cyberspace. Social network, anyone?

Conlin is the editor of the Working Life Dept. at BusinessWeek.

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