Solitude at work isn’t just for introverts anymore

Experts offer advice for providing refuge from the trials of the open-plan office.
Solitude at work isn’t just for introverts anymore

Susan Cain began a quiet revolution a few years ago by arguing that modern Western workspaces are skewed in favour of extroverts, while ignoring the needs of introverts.

“The trend toward radically open offices does a terrible disservice to us all, particularly those who do their best thinking in quieter, less chaotic spaces,” said Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. “If we want the best of introverts’ hearts and minds, we need to construct office spaces — and team and meeting cultures — that allow people to move freely back and forth between social and private spaces.”

It is not just those who identify as pure introverts who stand to gain; everyone can benefit from an office planned with all personality types in mind. “The truth is that most of us are neither introvert nor extrovert, we’re somewhere on the spectrum,” said Glenn Elliott, founder of London-based employee engagement company Reward Gateway. “So what I like to think about is, rather than designing offices for introverts — which makes it seem like you’re making a little piece of the office for a small set of people — I think it’s actually important to think about where are your introvert spaces, for when anyone at all needs some introvert time.”

Here are four tips for making a comfortable working space for people with introverted tendencies:

Designate quiet areas for anyone to use. Designating areas or rooms in an office for quiet work gives employees permission to be alone in their thoughts and work without interruption.

“When we start to think about what introverts require, we need to think about this universal need of privacy,” said Meg O’Neil, design manager of applications marketing at Steelcase, a US-based furniture company.  

O’Neil suggests providing small enclaves that allow someone to sit and do heads-down work, and areas that allow employees to gain a moment of rejuvenation or rest to recharge their batteries. These areas should be open to anyone in the office.

“Private offices for management assumes private, quiet space is a privilege of hierarchy,” Elliott said. “But, ideally, managers and leaders should be out with the people, and everyone should have access to a quiet space to work, at any hour they need it.”

Enable user control of environment. In 2014 Cain and Steelcase teamed up to create a collection of rooms called Quiet Spaces — five spaces designed specifically with introverts in mind. One of the key qualities of these spaces is that they give introverts the ability to control stimuli coming at them from the highly collaborative work that they may be doing on a daily basis.

“To be invisible or unseen for introverts is very valuable,” O’Neil said. “Space that allows you complete visual and acoustical control over your environment, and the power to manage whether or not people can see you, is one of the things that makes them feel psychologically safe.”

The spaces provide dimmable lighting, sound-absorbing walls, and treated glass that allows passers-by to see that the room is occupied without revealing what the occupant is working on.

Provide a variety of seating options. “Agile offices bring furnishings from the home into the office and encourage fluidity, so that people move around during the day,” Elliott said.

A good modern office will have big tables and desks where people can sit and chat with the person next to them, as well as small nooks more suited to two- to four-person meetings. It will have different types of seating, such as sofas and armchairs, where someone can read a chapter of a book or proofread a document for a client.

“If you want to be in a reclined position or lay down and close your eyes for a few minutes, it allows you to do that,” O’Neil said. “And again, because your employer is providing a sofa, I think they’re really promoting that behaviour and activity.”

Separate distractions. Open-plan offices are meant to encourage collaboration and innovation, but a less useful side effect of these spaces is constant interruptions from co-workers.

To reduce auditory distractions, Elliott recommends removing telephones from desks and putting them into calling booths, where anyone can go and have a private conversation.

“Having telephone conversations at your desk often isn’t the best because it’s not easy to concentrate,” he said. “Actually getting up and moving around to have a phone call is often preferable.”

Visual distractions can be reduced by providing different spaces for large-scale collaborative work, small-group work, and private work.

“Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, I think we need to be cognisant of user needs in this world that has more mobile work happening, more devices in play, less boundary between work and personal life, and more open plans,” O’Neil said. “What we’re really talking about is providing balance for the user within the space and really starting to evaluate how space can help.”

Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.