Finding solitude in an open plan office

How do introverts scientifically work differently than extroverts, and what that means for office space design

With the open plan format that dominates office design, change just keeps on coming.

From hotdesks to huddle spaces, and private meeting rooms to collaboration spaces, the evolution is seemingly endless.

The end goal is usually always increased collaboration and innovation. And to some degree, in every iteration, it worked.

But while the open plan office might suit extroverts who thrive on the ability to dart thoughts across a desk, there are plenty who would prefer some privacy. Only part of any workforce works better in an open-plan office and even some activity-based workspaces, with introverts accounting for between 30 percent to 50 percent of the workforce, according to the research arm of Steelcase, a US-based furniture manufacturer.

“On a fundamental level, introverts require quieter and more private spaces than their extrovert counterparts. But in the rush to keep up with the trend of flexible, collaborative working over the past decade, enterprise mostly forgot about them,” says Gavin Phillips, Workplace Strategy and Innovation Director at JLL.

“With this, they force a greater potential of group think. Where, when creating new products and services, the loudest voice and personality often wins out. Evidence shows that the need to move from group, to individual thought actually improves our ability to create innovative products and services.”

Redressing the balance

Armed with this knowledge, company bosses are starting to redress the balance between the need to work collaboratively, versus the need to work anonymously and uninterrupted.

In Australia, the faculty of education offices at Melbourne’s Monash University opted for a progressive “combi-office” model, which combines the cellular-style office – in the form of 7.5 square metre allocated ‘focus pods’ for academics – with the open-plan office with desks for professional staff and higher degree by research students.

Elsewhere, the introduction of more enclosed spaces that can be used by any employee for a period of time are increasingly being integrated into designs. The aim is to provide an option for a more secluded space when it’s needed.

“No solution is perfect,” says Dinesh Acharya, Workplace Strategy Director, Australia, for JLL. “It’s a balancing act. And while spaces where acoustic and visual stimulation can be controlled are absolutely necessary for accommodating introverts, so is the flexibility to work from home. The approach should be all encompassing.”

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Overdependence on extroverts

Society’s bias towards extroverts and the relative absence of private spaces, means the true value of introverts is rarely ever realised, according to Susan Cain, author of 'Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking'.

“Introverts recharge their batteries by being more on their own or in low-key environments, and extroverts recharge their batteries by being in spaces where there’s a lot going on,” she says. “So if introverts go into a space that’s too noisy or cacophonous, you’re placing extra cognitive load on their thought process that doesn’t need to be there, and shouldn’t be there if you want to get the best of everyone’s brain.”

As a guide for companies looking to redress the balance in their office, Steelcase has collaborated with Cain to come up with solutions for introvert-friendly offices.

Quiet Spaces is a collection of five spaces designed to provide quiet and privacy away from the office hubbub.

The spaces have been designed around the concepts of safety, security, and control over the external environment.

The guiding principles include the freedom to focus and innovate without interruption; the ability to control elements of the user’s workspace; and having a choice of places that provide complete privacy – the ability to be unseen and not see others.

Additional guidelines include using natural materials such as wood and wool to create a calming state of mind, bookshelves that hold tools to promote strategic thinking, home-style furniture, dimmable lights, stretching areas, and spaces to engage in deep conversation with colleagues. These won’t all necessarily be incorporated into the once space.

Not just introverts

With demands on everyone’s attention being stretched ever thinner, it’s not always just introverts that require solitude in the office.

Some 30 percent of full-time employees in the US feel they have to work away from their primary location to achieve productivity, while 41 percent don’t have access to private places within their office to have a confidential conversation, research shows.

“The end goal should be a company that people want to work for because of the value they put on company culture and environment. But as business priorities change along with external market drivers, and even a company’s workforce, the experience will need to be adapted. It’s a journey, not a destination,” says JLL’s Phillips.

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