Give introverts what they need to thrive at work


This open-plan office obsession is making parts of your workforce miserable and unproductive. Isn’t it time we considered more carefully how people work best?

Credit: Death to Stock

Credit: Death to Stock

I’ve just finished reading Quiet by Susan Cain (affiliate link) - subtitle: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking - and never before have I mentally highlighted and saved so many passages that resonated. I finally had some understanding on why I hate brainstorms so much, why I prefer to consider words and ideas before sharing them, why open-plan offices are anathema to me. It looks like I’m more introverted than extroverted. This gave me confidence in looking at the twisting path of my career: why introverts like me can make great leaders, why we’re really good at managing teams because we’re naturals when it comes to listening and why no, we’re not shy when it comes to networking but we’re happy to go home as soon as it’s over to a book and a glass of wine. It also helped me to appreciate the ways in which the extrovert-introvert mix in a team is so beneficial. As my friend and TEDxLondon director Maryam Pasha said to a colleague once, ‘I come up with hundreds of ideas and Laura picks the best ones. She’s my filter.’

What frustrates me, on reflection, is how few workplaces are set up to accommodate the introvert personality. Every office – of many – I’ve worked in has been made up of an open-plan working space with, maybe, an office room or two for just the most senior employees. One place included a couple of nooks but if you sat in them people would ask you what was wrong; using them was seen as hiding out rather than doing quiet, considered work. In all, the prevailing attitude has been to be cheerful, available, adept at small talk – on show.

I came home from these workplaces exhausted every day, not from the work (which I almost invariably loved) or even from the social interaction (I actually like talking to people), but from the sheer weight of having to perform a role from 9 till 5 every day.

I wish more employers and managers would take introversion seriously. Depending on which study you consult, one third to one half of us are somewhere on the introversion scale and if your workplace isn’t catering to the mix, you might be alienating 50% of your best employees. Here are some suggestions on where to start if you want to fix that.

1. Consider the physical environment of your company

According to Susan Cain (and she cites numerous studies on this), open-plan offices reduce productivity, impair memory, increase staff turnover, make people sick, hostile, and stressed out from the level of noise. Instead of ditching the partitions, create an equal variety of working spaces that include nooks and crannies, offices with doors, areas for different sizes of groups to meet. And if someone just wants to leave to go for a walk, let them. They’ll most likely come back energised and with their best ideas. The pressure of presenteeism is incredibly stressful for introverts.

2. Mix up your meeting agendas

Do you always stick to the same agenda of activities in meetings? Is it focussed around group discussion? How well balanced is the floor time taken up by each participant? Introverts generally aren’t interested in competing to be the noisiest person in the room; they’d rather say fewer, considered points. I wish I could give a number to all the group activities I've participated in or – shudder – away days I’ve been on where a facilitator has said, ‘You’re quiet, what are you thinking?’ and I’ve wanted to say, ‘I’m thinking that I’d like to go away and reflect on this in my own space’ but instead have come up with some phony answer because I’m being pressured to.

If you're organising a meeting, circulate a clear agenda ahead of time so that people have space to consider the topics; mix up the type of activities (if you’re going to do a group brainstorm, give equal weight to an activity that requires time for solo thought); set activities in small groups (twos and threes with defined roles) rather than larger ones, in which some people will inevitably sit back; please to goodness don’t call people out in the meeting.

3. Take flexible working seriously

For all the consideration you may give to your office environment, it’s inevitable that most introverts will just prefer working from home at least some of the time. As a consultant, I divide my time between home, clients’ and colleagues’ offices, and coffee shops. The variety fuels me and the quiet of my home office is crucial for giving me energy for meetings, presentations and lectures. A flexible working request should be for more than just accommodating a family; it should be treated as an acknowledgement that the individual knows how they work best and thus how they’ll improve the success of the business.  

I’m always interested to hear how people are evolving their workplaces to allow different personality types to thrive so let me know your own experiences in the comments. And if you want to know more of why this is important, here’s Susan Cain’s TED talk on The power of introverts.