What does it take to make remote work successful? For both employees and entrepreneurs, a good tech setup and relatively distraction-free space is certainly essential. So are techniques to keep endless Zoom calls from destroying your productivity (and sanity). A modern approach to management that focuses on what people produce rather exactly how and when they produce it helps too.
But even with these basics in place, some people thrive in remote work while others struggle. Why is that? The nature of a team’s work clearly has something to do with it (experts say innovation is tougher at a distance), as does individual personality and seniority (young people benefit from the passive education of being around colleagues).
But, according to a fascinating new study out of the University of Cambridge recently published in Human-Computer Interaction, there’s another hidden factor that’s essential for remote work success — the right mindset.
What’s true of kids is true of remote workers, too
The research team started from the same places that many bosses find themselves in today. There are about a million studies and surveys about remote work, and they often contradict each other on the benefits and drawbacks of remote setups. Which of these studies should business leaders believe?
The answer, according to this new research, is maybe all of them. Rather than finding that remote work is always good or always bad, the team discovered that mindset matters massively when it comes to remote work success. Those with the right mindset thrive in remote setups, and those without it don’t.
What is that magic mindset that makes remote workers successful? Nothing fancier than simply believing that working well remotely isn’t a fixed preference or personality trait but, instead, a skill you can develop.
This distinction might ring a bell for you. A ton of much-discussed research has shown that children generally do better in school if they have a “growth mindset” rather than a “fixed” one. This means that kids who think that they can improve their performance with hard work are more resilient and more successful than kids who think performance mostly boils down to innate talent.
When the Cambridge team surveyed 113 Swiss workers, they found the same basic idea applies to remote work — those who have a “growth mindset” about working from a distance do better at it.
“Fundamental beliefs about the nature of remote work, as captured in workers’ mindsets about whether remote work is an ability that can be learned or that people simply possess or not, are related to emotions and ultimately perceived productivity during remote work,” the study concludes. “Knowledge workers who agreed that people simply either are or are not the kind of person who can work remotely tended to feel more negative and less positive emotion during the course of remote work.”
Remote work takes work
In short, to thrive working from home it generally helps to think of remote work as a skill to perfect rather than as a talent or preference you either have or do not. People’s differing mindsets on this issue probably go some way toward explaining the crazy contradictions between studies on the effects of going remote.
That’s good news both for bosses looking to help their teams thrive remotely and workers worried that they’re just not cut out for remote work.
In both cases, the right intervention may simply be to reassure your team (or yourself) that figuring out the best structures, tools, and workflows for remote work is a process for everyone. You’re not either born a “remote work type” or not. Having to work at remote work is normal and natural.
That mindset shift won’t take away every struggle, but it should help you and your team more easily overcome the difficulties that do arise.