Remote work may be diminishing the importance of social skills at work, according to findings published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. A pair of studies found that, when making hypothetical hiring decisions for a remote position, people favor candidates that are highly competent (although less warm).
Throughout the pandemic, office closures led many businesses to make the switch to teleworking. Some workplaces have never looked back, and this switch to remote work has greatly changed the dynamics in the workplace. One notable change is that spontaneous social interactions between coworkers — sometimes called water cooler conversations — are severely limited. As a result of such changes, social skills are becoming less important for remote workers.
Study author Kyriaki Fousiani and colleagues wanted to explore how the switch to remote work may have changed the way recruiters select candidates for hire.
“This is a very timely topic that has influenced not only how people perceive work and work conditions, but also how employable people have become after the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Fousiani, an assistant professor of organizational psychology at the University of Groningen. “Especially workers representing vulnerable groups (eg older employees and women) may be more heavily influenced by the recruiters’ growing interest in candidates’ competence over social skills.”
When it comes to making social judgments, studies have shown that warmth usually has a primacy effect over competence. Warmth refers to characteristics like sociability, politeness, and friendliness, while competence refers to characteristics like intelligence, ambition, and skillfulness. The study authors hypothesized that, when making hiring decisions, this primacy effect should be reversed.
Fousiani and associates proposed that since organizations are motivated to reach their goals and make profits, recruiters should view candidates who are competent as more instrumental compared to candidates who are warm. The researchers further speculated that this should be especially true when recruiting for online jobs since remote work requires skillfulness more than social abilities.
In a first study, the researchers had 304 lay people read vignettes about two candidates who were up for a job that was either remote (teleworking condition) or onsite (office condition). Participants were asked to take the perspective of an HR manager and select which candidate they would recommend for hire. Depending on the vignette, the job candidates were described with varying degrees of competence and warmth.
The results revealed that, in general, participants recommended the candidate with high competence (and moderate warmth) more often than the candidate with high warmth (and moderate competence). However, while this effect was significant in the teleworking condition, it was not significant in the office condition.
“Real-life examples underscore the primacy effect of candidate competence over warmth in hiring decisions in organizations. For instance, most job interviews focus on the candidate’s capabilities and intellectual skills while less effort is put into extracting information about the candidate’s social skills,” Fousiani told PsyPost.
“Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed the global workforce, and most companies are currently hiring people to work either fully or partly remotely. This work-setting shift has further influenced recruiters’ attention to candidate’s competence-related (vs. warmth-related) skills. The present research sought to clarify that teleworking creates conditions that further undermine the importance of workers’ social skills, which are inherent to people’s wellbeing and organizational progress.”
In a second study, the researchers conducted a field experiment with recruiters as participants. This time, 298 recruiters read a job vacancy description and were asked to imagine that they had to fill this position for their current company or department. The participants read descriptions of two candidates who varied in warmth and competence and were asked to indicate the extent that they would recommend each candidate for the job.
In contrast to Study 1, the recruiters were more likely to choose the candidate with high warmth (and moderate competence) than the candidate with high competence (and moderate warmth). However, when the recruiter’s work setting was remote, they perceived the competent candidate as more appropriate for the job, and in turn, were more likely to recommend this candidate for hire.
Notably, the first study showed worker competence to be more important than warmth for hiring decisions, while the second study revealed the opposite pattern. The authors noted that the participants in Study 1 had no recruitment experience, while the participants in Study 2 were actual recruiters with hiring experience. This background experience may have led recruiters to have a greater understanding of the value of social and interpersonal skills on the job.
The overall findings suggest that teleworking may be changing the skills and characteristics that are favored in the workplace.
“Inevitably, the shift to more teleworking is drastically transforming the work content, work dynamics, and the qualifications that organizations appreciate in candidates,” Fousiani said. “In the past, coming across colleagues in the office hallway and chatting about work-unrelated topics was happening regularly. Workers would spontaneously go by a colleague’s office to ask for a missing piece of information or to make a coffee break. All these informal interactions, widely known as ‘social capital’ (i.e., ‘…the aggregate of resources that derive from the network of
relationships possessed by an individual or organization’) have now been limited to the minimum due to teleworking.”
“Although workers report more meetings than ever, they also report less social interaction with other people at work. Eventually, workers’ social skills and social capabilities become
less important with teleworking, while other skills, such as their efficiency and intelligence, which are more easily ‘visible’ and possibly ‘useful’ in socially sterile online settings, become more vital. This is worrisome as it is might be linked to the dehumanization of employees and to increased stress and ill-being.”
“HR practitioners should be aware of recruiters’ overall preference for competent over sociable candidates and the possible bias that they may demonstrate when evaluating candidates
in their attempt to further the (instrumental) goals of said organization,” Fousiani added. “HR practitioners should not neglect the role that the work-setting — teleworking or working from the office — plays in the personnel selection process.”
“In other words, HR practitioners should be aware of their tendency to reject candidates who have weaker competence-related but stronger social skills when judging them through the lens of the socially sterile online work-setting and be mindful of the consequences of such decisions. For instance, although — at first glance — teleworking does not seem to require strong relational and interpersonal skills, such skills are always beneficial to organizations as they might enable workers to find ways to connect, even when the circumstances do not allow, and also, are strongly related to people’s wellbeing and the advancement of the organization in the long-run.”
The study, “Applying for remote jobs? You’d better be competent! Teleworking turns recruiters attention to candidate competence over warmth-related skills”, was authored by Kyriaki Fousiani, Chloe Sypes, and Bibiana M. Armenta.