Telework doesn’t suit every worker personality, environment

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Surveys showing how much people like teleworking have a flaw: The respondents are often self-selected telework enthusiasts. Teleworking has some serious financial, career and social challenges, according to Dr. Kati Peditto. She’s assistant professor of human factors in the department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the U.S. Air Force Academy, and she joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin for more.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Dr. Peditto Good to have you on.

Dr. Kati Peditto: Wonderful to be here this morning Tom.

Tom Temin: So before we get to some of the details, you have done some research into why the office might be a better place, especially for people starting out in their careers to work. Tell us more about that.

Dr. Kati Peditto: Sure. So overall the success of remote work really depends on the personality traits of the employees and the environments that they’re in. So we have to have this human environment fit. And that’s primarily where my research lies. Right now, we have an entirely new population of remote workers. As you mentioned, these people who didn’t self select into these positions that were rather forced to adapt into telework because of COVID-19. So now we’re looking at entirely new populations of people and new environments. And unfortunately, we’re seeing that those environments don’t necessarily fit all people.

Tom Temin: And of course, the Air Force, just to name one example, has a very large civilian workforce. And some of them are not at the young end of the spectrum, but maybe have been working for 20-30-40 years. And they are also tossed out and may have just simply never thought of life outside of a go to office.

Dr. Kati Peditto: Yeah, in terms of populations that we see being really affected by this crisis, we think about young people who haven’t necessarily been able to get to know their office mates and get to know the office culture. But we also think of people who are more experienced and tenured in their positions, and have to adapt to an entirely new way of working with technology that they may not be used to working with.

Tom Temin: And some of your work, and I’m quoting from your own website, says that you are interested in the way the built environment facilitates well being and belonging in institutional settings for young people. Tell us more about that.

Dr. Kati Peditto: So a lot of my work revolves around learning and healing. So my dissertation was on oncology environments for adolescents and young adults with cancer, how do we design environments that actually promote healing? And primarily, one of the big mechanisms that we found was this idea of social support and control in our environments. How do we create hospitals that actually give patients a sense of support and control? Those exact same mechanisms translate to the work environment as well, especially during a pandemic. How do we create work environments that give employees a sense of control and a sense of social support, even when they’re working remotely?

Tom Temin: Because you can get control I guess in the most basic sense, because you’re at home, and that you can control in some ways more than you can the office. But that leaves out the social support, and also the factors that maybe some of the more contemporary office design thinking can bring to the work.

Dr. Kati Peditto: Yes, you’re absolutely right, Tom. In some ways, people working from home have more control over their schedules, over their work life balance. But sometimes they have less control when we think of the employees who are on nine hour Zoom calls and have to have their cameras on and have to have their home office look a certain way. That in and of itself is a loss of control for some people. And certainly you touched on the loss of social support when we are at work, our primary form of social interaction is with our coworkers, as we move into young adulthood, adulthood aging. Our biggest social network is our co workers and our families. So what happens when we lose our co workers?

Tom Temin: So you seem to be turning on its head the notion that a government which wants to attract young people, that has a hard time attracting them and then retaining them, often you hear almost everybody, CIOs, they’re all saying, well, golly now that we can offer complete telework, that’s the way to attract these people, because they’re used to being in Starbucks or whatever it is, and working. But you’re saying maybe not — maybe people coming into the workforce really do need the workplace?

Dr. Kati Peditto: Yes, especially when we think about government work, whether that’s military, civilian, contractor, there is a whole new language to learn right between the acronyms and the culture, there is an entirely new set of rules to learn as a federal employee. And when you are working remotely, I can attest to this I started my position in June. It is a lot harder to just naturally come upon those rules and learn the culture of your workplace when you’re working remotely.

Tom Temin: Especially in the military settings where you have uniformed people and civilians working side by side, there are lots of stated and unstated protocols dealing with one another so that mutual respect is maintained. For example, you always hear officers refer to civilians as Mr. and Ms., Mrs, whatever. And then in public settings at least, and vice versa, referred to the civilians refer to the officers by rank. That’s just one example of the kinds of things that might be hard to pick up if you’re not in person.

Dr. Kati Peditto: Yes, absolutely. Again, I can attest to the challenges of some of these things, starting a new position in the middle of a pandemic, the spoken and unspoken rules are very challenging to pick up on when you’re not in an office and experiencing those informal social interactions. that happen when you leave your door open, or you sit in the break room, or you’re in the hallway, it’s a lot harder to make mistakes and then learn from those mistakes as well.

Tom Temin: Now, some agencies are proud of the fact of how much onboarding, as they put it, they have done during the pandemic. Some of them because they had big workloads brought on by pandemic spending. Others just in the normal course of getting people that they would hire throughout the year. So if you are an agency that has onboarded anybody, large or small numbers, what should you do to make sure that when they actually come to the office, that they get the kind of support and training, if you will, maybe that’s not the best word, to be able to function effectively. Golly, now I’m here with everybody else.

Dr. Kati Peditto: Virtual onboarding can be a fantastic tool, because in some cases, you can take it on your own time, you can go back and look through the literature and the videos that they’re giving you. Usually onboarding is such a big information drop that sometimes you don’t know what to do with it. So virtual onboarding can be a fantastic tool, even post pandemic, but there needs to be some kind of in person orientation, especially to your own department, to your own immediate work colleagues. That’s where you pick up those spoken and unspoken rules that we’re talking about. Virtual onboarding tends to only cover the institution wide policies, and then you have to rely on your supervisor and coworkers to fill in the gaps for you.

Tom Temin: It’s almost as if someone, if they’re young and new, and first time in the office, they should have a mentor to kind of say these are the unwritten rules, or here’s things to watch out for, and maybe don’t try this, maybe try that.

Dr. Kati Peditto: Yes, I am very lucky to have both a civilian mentor and a civilian supervisor. One of the takeaways that I’ve been sharing with individuals who are kind of stakeholders in this pandemic workplace remote from home issue is the importance of a good supervisor, employee communication strategy, what are the affordances that you can give to your employee in terms of control over their environment control, over the amount of work assigned to them, control over their work hours? And consequently, as an employee, are you communicating your needs as we move through this pandemic?

Tom Temin: So there’s really some homework for the leadership and the supervisory levels throughout the government before people can leave home. They’ve got homework to do.

Dr. Kati Peditto: Yes, so we don’t have a ton of research right on how to come back from a pandemic. This is a little bit unprecedented, to use the word that’s thrown around, definitely unprecedented in terms of research. But what we do know is that for individuals who have taken long term sick leave, maybe for a mental health disorder for pregnancy, the psychosocial work environment is the key predictor in a successful return to work. So as managers, as supervisors, we need to be really cognizant of the psychosocial work environment that we’re creating for our employees.

Tom Temin: In some ways, it’s parallel to the situation of people that re-enter the workforce after some period of time, say for children, or some you mentioned illness, but whatever it takes you out of the workforce for a long time, coming back you need that reorientation.

Dr. Kati Peditto: Exactly, yes. And so that is on both the larger, the CEOs, the executive board, to be creating and thinking of policies that enable return to work, but also within these individual employee supervisor units.

Tom Temin: And just totally unrelated to getting back to your work with the built environment at the Air Force. And like so many specialized activities or components, they have built environments to support a lot of missions, say a network operation center or security operation center, a cockpit, a bombbay in the middle of a plane or whatever the case might be. Is there a lot of work yet to be done and how those built environments or constructed environments could maybe better support the people to be more productive in them than the way it’s been thought of for the past 40-50-60 years?

Dr. Kati Peditto: Absolutely. You are asking the core question of human factors. How do we create environments to better fit the way people work and think and move. Cockpits you mentioned is a fantastic example. How do we create a helicopter cockpit, a plane cockpit, with all the instrumentation that it requires to fit an operator under duress? That was the human factors question that Captain Sully Sullenberger asked in the miracle on the Hudson. How do we create a cockpit that actually endures a stressful situation and allows operators to safely operate these vehicles?

Tom Temin: So is that some of the work you’re doing maybe for the Air Force, some of the research?

Dr. Kati Peditto: Absolutely. We have an entire human factors research group. And we have a number of cadets that are doing fantastic senior level capstone projects on cockpit design and communication design as well.

Tom Temin: Well, we’ll have to return to that in another interview. Katie Peditto is assistant professor of human factors in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the US Air Force Academy. Thanks so much for joining me.

Dr. Kati Peditto: Thank you so much Tom.

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