Collaborate or Hibernate? Office Design for Extroverts & Introverts

It’s probably safe to assume that most people are aware of the terms ‘extrovert’ and ‘introvert’ – they are one of the oldest notions in the history of personality theories. It’s quite likely that you will have some idea of which category you fall into; some people are expressive, outgoing and comfortable in interacting with their surroundings – while others are reserved, quiet and more comfortable alone. The former, the extroverts, enjoy engaging with the external world and recharge by communicating with other people. The latter, the introverts, prefer to rely on themselves instead of seeking stimulation from the outside. But the difference between extroverts and introverts is much more complicated than this and these contrasts mean that clashes can easily occur in an office environment. It is this issue which will be discussed in this blog – how to get the most out of extroverts and introverts in the office environment.i

In recent years, the modern workplace has taken huge strides away from the traditional one desk per person set up of the past. Offices which have been designed around activity-based working are generally open planned in their set up, which means the contemporary work environment generally caters for extroverts. The original concept was meant to push people out of their cubicles and into environments adapted for a specific type of work – whether that be meeting spaces, breakout areas or ‘heads down’ working areas. But over the years, this concept has morphed into open offices, big collaborative spaces and the pressure to be connected 24/7. This means that office workers can find themselves constantly within ear shot of others, overlooked and with no sense of privacy – a nightmare for the introverts amongst us. This focus on an office design catered for extroverts has an impact on the other half of the workforce, preventing them from getting the quiet, isolation they crave for creative breakthroughs.ii Yet a craving for privacy and quiet time is not all that separates the introverts from the extroverts. Let’s consider the key differences between the two groups:

This table gives an idea of how extroverts and introverts act a bit more substance and begins to scratch at the surface of how the different personality types react in situations in the office. It seems obvious that introverted people are not going to thrive in an open plan environment in the same way that an extrovert might, so why do we continue to design offices in a way that don’t work for 50% of employees?
The theory behind the open plan offices that dominate workplace design is that open, airy work environments are a catalyst for creativity, collaboration and transparency. But as time goes on, it’s becoming clear that this approach is too simplistic. In practice, different personality types thrive in different environments. It is also true that different types of work call for different types of space configuration – even the most social people sometimes need quiet to get their heads around a draft of a speech or focus on crunching numbers for a report.iii

Now we need to take the concept of activity-based design one step further to recognize that primary activities are achieved by different work processes. For example: an introvert’s idea of collaboration is a quiet space with enough room for two people and their laptops, while an extrovert’s idea of collaboration may involve a large table in the middle of the main floor. Same activity, two very different approaches. Along with the benefits of open planned offices, come the drawbacks. And one of these is the challenge that now exists to meet the needs of introverted employees in the space. Luckily, there are some key changes that can be made within an office to make people happier and more productive.
Introverts are more sensitive to external stimuli than extroverts are, which means open planned spaces can add to their stress levels. Working in large, collaborative spaces can be exhausting for introverted people, due to the noise and lack of privacy. Providing smaller, acoustic spaces within a floorplan can counteract this effect and give introverts a place to bolt if they need peace and quiet. These can take the form of one person ‘pods’, quiet zones specifically for heads down/laptop working or deep seating with high backs to block out sound and reduce distraction. iiii

These semi-private spaces within an open office will give people the option to escape from the hustle and bustle of the main floor plan if they wish. A multi-layered office design is an effective way to reach multiple personality types within the workforce. In particular, the ‘deep work’ pods/areas should be seen as a must-have; at Where We Work we see time and time again in our workplace surveys that people are crying out for spaces like these. Depending on how large your company is, you can consider pods, huddle spaces or even an entire quiet floor/zone. Some workplaces have even introduced silent areas as part of their activity-based working layout.
In contract to this, extroverts get their buzz from being around a multitude of people, while introverts crave quiet time to recharge. This means that common areas, such as breakout zones, are ideal for extroverts. This group also generally appreciate smart collaboration with technology; video conferencing, adjustable height desks or whiteboards and tables with built-in touch screens are all great ways to encourage collaboration and get the most out of extroverted workers.ii

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to considering the differing needs of introverts and extroverts in the workplace and it is certainly an issue that deserves to be acknowledged within office design. In 2017, we are seeing an ever-growing emphasis on physical health and wellbeing being matched by the importance of emotional wellness.
To summarise: it’s a good long-term investment to have conversations with your staff about how their office space can help them be happier – whether they be introverted or extroverted, older or younger, in IT or sales. Because as we know: happy workers are generally productive workers – and that’s definitely a good thing for your company’s bottom line.

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