The modern office is not fit for introverts

Open plan offices are widely chastised for their impact on our ability to concentrate and focus on our work, yet they, together with other trends such as hotdesking, persist in the modern workplace.

It’s perhaps no surprise that such environments are anathema to introverts, but that is exactly what a recent study revealed.  It found that open plan offices may be great for extraverted people, but most of the rest of us find them incredibly uncomfortable.

The personality of your office

“Despite changes in technology many people still work in an office. Understanding how personality interacts with the office environment is key to improving job satisfaction and productivity,” the authors say.

The study saw a few hundred employees quizzed on both their current work environment, and on their personality type.

When the results were analyzed, they revealed that the modern office is usually much more suited to extroverts than it is to introverts.  The extroverted members of the group were generally much happier and reported higher levels of job satisfaction.

Why we tend to make things worse

What’s more, new policies by facilities managers tend to exacerbate things rather than improve them.  For instance, hot desking was widely reviled by everyone, whilst having ample quiet areas to go and focus were widely sought after but seldom offered.

“These results support previous research into the unpopularity of open-plan offices and hot-desking and the positive effects of personalisation. However, there are some simple changes that can be made to improve staff satisfaction and increase productivity,” the authors say.

“These include allowing staff more storage for personal items when hot-desking; creating smaller neighbourhoods within open-plan offices; not overdoing clear desk policies as clearing away all personal items can be demotivating to some people and providing quiet zones for people to work in when needed,” they continue.

Living and working

These findings chime with the results of a second study that I wrote about last year.  This time, rather than limiting its reach to our work environment, it wanted to explore the kind of environments different personality types would love to live in.

It found that introverted people are much more likely to live in mountainous areas where they have ample time and space to recharge.

So, if you’re based in a bustling city and then provide employees with a stimulus-rich open office workspace, there’s a pretty strong chance that you’re going to alienate the introverts in your workforce.

A natural solution

Thankfully, there may be a relatively natural solution to this.  A third study explored the white noise systems that are typically installed in most office spaces.

These deploy a low-level sound that aims to muffle the spread of un-wanted chatter throughout the office.  Researchers found that if you replaced this generic white noise with that of a bustling mountain stream, it had a profoundly positive impact upon workplace morale and productivity.

All of which may be food for thought if you want to get the best out of the introverts in your midst.

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8 thoughts on “The modern office is not fit for introverts

  1. I retired about two years ago, only to go back to work recently out of intellectual boredom. Before, I always had my own office, which was perfect for the kind of thinking job I was supposed to do. Today, I am again in a thinking job, but in a small office with two others, the three of us sitting at abutted desks. If the aim of open-plan/shared-space offices is to promote interaction among colleagues – well, think again. You have the extrovert who shouts and screams and the telephone addict who can’t put the receiver down, and poor old me who’s trying to think through a problem or analyze a document. The good news is that I am expected to spend a couple of days a week at another location where, thankfully, there is little to disturb me. Surely there must be some serious research on not so much what working-space configuration suits what personality type but on what configuration suits what job function.

  2. I worked in "open space" for years and didn't realize how much it was affecting me until I got away from it. At the time, I didn't know I was a Highly Sensitive Person and an Introvert, but looking back, I'm just glad I survived it. I worked a lot of long, tough days and can remember coming home literally shaking inside from all the noise, chatter, phone calls and fellow employees and stress from the kind of "customer service" job I was doing.

  3. I currently work in an open office environment. I sit right next to a large conference room where people are constantly coming and going. I find I need to get up from my desk and walk away on occasion just to give myself some escape

  4. Too many offices seemingly are forcing the "constant collaboration" issue that they are basically pushing an Extrovert Ideal in the workplace.

    Some offices are banning the use of headphones, and not even putting in any kind of "cubicle walls", as well as banning anything that would "block your view", beyond a computer monitor. Toss in the difficulty of taking a conference room, as they seem to be constantly in use.

    I've only found an ideal when you fight to get a laptop (over a desktop) and take full advantage of the "work anywhere you like in the office" allowance given by some execs. If you can get some remote privileges or flex time, even better. I'll see many parents use their kids as an excuse to work from home one or more days a week…which does perturb many of us who do not have children.

    Lastly, I'd honestly say not to be afraid to leave a job when the forcing of open plan "constant collaboration" simply is too overbearing to deal with. When you see an employer put too much value on "seeing your face" and social skills around the office, then you know it's time to seek a better employer.

    I still hope the fight continues until more employers give up this nonsense and at least allow more remote working and flexible time.

  5. I struggle with the open office plan as an introvert and a leader of a large work team. Just this week I had an employee who was very frazzled from his workload and the distractions and disruptions while working from his cubicle. I was able to find him a quiet office with a door that he could borrow for a day and this seemed to be just what he needed. I am working to formalize this quiet space so that he and others can reserve it as needed.

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