The role of self-regulatory abilities in predicting performance while teleworking: A study during the COVID-19 pandemic

Scholars have argued that individual characteristics promoting self-regulation such as self-efficacy and self-goal setting were crucial for employees to cope effectively with the challenges of teleworking during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet, research simultaneously exploring these specific self-regulatory abilities in relation to various performance dimensions is scarce. Thus, the researchers Loredana Mihalca, Lucia Ratiu, Christoph Mengelkamp, Gabriela Brendea and Daniel Metz examined whether self-efficacy and self-goal setting are related to proficiency, adaptivity, and proactivity while teleworking during the pandemic using a cross-sectional design and tested the directionality of these relationships using a two-wave cross-lagged panel design. The degree of telework was considered a moderator for these relationships in both studies.

Teleworking has been used as a practice before the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the prevalence of this practice increased significantly due to the pandemic, irrespective of employees’ jobs, abilities, and preferences. The pandemic imposed a new home-based work context that differed significantly from the context of pre-pandemic teleworking. Whereas pre-pandemic teleworking was a voluntary, infrequent practice, teleworking during the pandemic was a mandatory practice, with employees being forced to work away from their primary offices without any preparation.

Furthermore, teleworking during the pandemic was unlike pre-pandemic teleworking, as employees had to work from home under difficult conditions (e.g., closure of school and childcare facilities, economic and social disruptions), while simultaneously worrying about the health of their family or of themselves. Lack of structure, blurred work–non-work boundaries, and stress had been associated with pre-pandemic teleworking, but they seemed to be particularly exacerbated by the pandemic.

Studies focusing on teleworking during the pandemic have revealed that employees experienced high levels of workload and work–home conflict increases in the work hours due to the pressure of being all the time “available” in addition to enhanced perceptions of isolation and loneliness. These challenging demands posed constant pressure on employees impeding their performance during the pandemic (Kröner & Müller, 2023; Mihalca et al., 2021).

Increased independence and responsibility of employees for their work during the pandemic due to a diminished access to job resources (e.g., low social support) while trying to manage the challenges of the pandemic highlight the importance of self-regulatory abilities (self-efficacy, self-goal setting) for performance maintenance and adjustment to the new work modality (Troll et al., 2022). Thus, we expect that self-regulatory abilities are more predictive of work performance under conditions of full-time teleworking compared to working in the office.

The data collected by Babeș-Bolyai University researchers were made available to the UBB CORE Center team, which also received the necessary methodology to correctly interpret the evolution of this field. UBB CORE is the North-West Regional Center for Career Guidance for Researchers.

The Centre is co-funded by the European Union through the National Plan for Recovery and Resilience, administered in this field by the Ministry of Research, Innovation and Digitalization of the Romanian Government. The project beneficiary is the Babeș-Bolyai University.

The UBB CORE Center provides resources to scientific researchers in the North-West Region of Romania, which includes the counties of Cluj, Bihor, Sălaj, Satu Mare, Maramureș and Bistrița-Năsăud.

“The data made available to researchers can help them understand the extent of the phenomenon. Also, the methodology used is sound and can inspire new scientific research in the future,” said Leonard Horvath, Director of the UBB CORE Center.

Self-efficacy and performance while teleworking

One of the most studied personal resources in relation to work performance is self-efficacy, defined as a judgment of how well one can successfully perform specific tasks. According to social-cognitive theory, self-efficacy is an important predictor of resilience and successful adjustment to unexpected, stressful, or challenging situations. This occurs because individuals judge their ability to successfully deal with challenges, and based on this judgment, they adjust their effort and resources to manage such challenges. Individuals with high self-efficacy are more likely to invest additional resources, persist longer, and exert greater effort to cope with challenges, which in turn help them achieve desired outcomes.

Other mechanisms through which self-efficacy positively influences work performance are the perception of being in control when encountering challenges and the use of more effective task strategies, which are essential for goal attainment. There is plenty of evidence for the positive relationship between self-efficacy and task performance; however, this relationship has not been extensively investigated in the context of teleworking and, in particular, of teleworking during the pandemic.

Self-efficacy is positively related to proficiency while teleworking.

Adaptivity and proactivity were more important than proficiency during the pandemic. Both dimensions of performance require self-regulatory abilities, including self-efficacy.

Indeed, self-efficacy has been shown to be an effective predictor in adapting to demanding situations, because adaptive behaviors are unlikely to occur unless one has the confidence in the ability to effectively manage such behaviors (e.g., dealing with uncertain work situations, coping with work stress; In the context of pandemic teleworking, employees had to adapt and cope with the new environmental demands resulting from the changes in the work structure (e.g., lack of structure, intensification of work) and in the nature of interpersonal relationships.

Employees had to adapt to new work roles, new technologies, or repeated changes in work procedures. As the pre-pandemic literature found strong evidence that individuals with high self-efficacy perform more adaptively in stressful situations due to their persistence and greater effort invested in coping with challenges as well as due to their more effective coping strategies, we also expect that high self-efficacy increases teleworkers’ adaptivity during pandemic teleworking.

Self-efficacy is positively related to adaptivity while teleworking

Whereas adaptivity refers to the capacity to cope and respond effectively to changes, proactivity involves self initiated changes aimed at improving the work conditions. During the pandemic, employees not only had to adapt to the changes in their work environment but also to proactively find ways to deal effectively with these changes. For example, in order to accomplish their tasks, employees had to initiate interactions with colleagues, which could enhance feelings of connectedness despite physical distance and perceived social isolation. In addition, employees had to engage in feedback seeking or information-gathering to solve work problems, which required them to proactively find ways to interact and exchange information with colleagues. Being proactive during the pandemic entailed some degree of risk, because self-initiated actions could be met with resistance and suspicion. The risks associated with proactive actions emphasize the importance of self-efficacy for proactivity. This is because employees with high self-efficacy are more likely to judge their actions as being successful, and thus, they take the risk and invest the effort required to be proactive. Self-efficacy also raises feelings of control and willingness to overcome difficulties, which have been identified as important predictors of successful proactive actions. Thus, self-efficacy is expected to be an important predictor for proactivity during the pandemic.

Self-efficacy is positively related to proactivity while teleworking.

Self-goal setting is another personal resource that helps employees to adapt to the challenges of teleworking. Self-set goals play a significant role in goal-setting theory, as they are a key element in self-regulation process. There is vast empirical evidence that self-set goals facilitate goal achievement and performance through motivational mechanisms such as attention, effort, and persistence and through cognitive mechanisms such as strategy development.

Results of the study

To test the hypotheses about the moderating role of degree of telework in the relationships between self-efficacy/self-goal setting and performance dimensions, the researchers estimated a moderated regression model with self-efficacy and self-goal setting as predictors, degree of telework (i.e., continuous variable) as moderator, and performance dimensions (proficiency, adaptivity, and proactivity) as dependent variables, using the LMS approach.

The results of the 2 studies have been recently published by Wiley.