If you’re having problems working in an open-office space, you just might be an introvert. Open offices were created with the goal of increasing collaboration. Instead, these open spaces have put half the workforce at a disadvantage.
According to introversion expert Susan Cain, the idea of open-office space collaboration was originally inspired by internet collaboration. When the internet came along, the system allowed people to collaborate over vast differences and time zones. Organizations were enthralled with crowdsourcing as a quick and efficient way to tap into different mindsets to solve troubling problems.
As the thinking went, if collaborating over time and distance was good, then collaborating in person would be even better. Walls were replaced with open spaces. Now people could talk to each other face-to-face and come up with great ideas in person. In the exuberance to increase collaboration, organizations overlooked that internet collaboration had been done by workers alone, in quiet spaces, with walls. You know, by introverts.
You just might be an introvert.
Most people don’t know this but introverts make up between thirty to fifty percent of the U.S. population. In Cain’s bestselling book Quiet, she says this number seems large because the United States is one of the most outgoing, extroverted cultures in the world. Americans exalt the gift of gab, celebrity glamour, and loud parties. We talk a lot, go out all the time, and love to socialize.
On the other hand, introverts are seen as either shy wallflowers or scowling misanthropes, unable or unwilling to join society. The truth is quite the opposite. Introverts love society, just in smaller doses than your average extrovert. The life of the party might even be your friendly, neighborhood introvert. You just don’t see them as introverted because they aren’t shy or scowling. In reality, introverts enjoy people and socializing too. They just don’t have the energy to go all night, so they go home early to get some peace and quiet.
Given a choice, introverts prefer more quiet, less stimulating environments, so they can focus on what matters to them most. Unfortunately, this is not what the open-office space is.
The open-office space is killing your mojo.
According to Cain, the open-office environment is too noisy and overstimulating for most introverts. In a study where introverts and extroverts adjusted the level of music while working on problems, on average introverts preferred sound at 55 decibels while extroverts enjoyed 72. When you consider the average conversation level is around 60 decibels, you can see how conversations can disturb an introvert, while stimulating an extrovert.
Open-offices also cause too many interruptions. Due to the lack of privacy, a worker can be interrupted at any time. In a study of 38,000 workers, Cain said, being interrupted was found to be one of the biggest barriers to productivity.
In addition, Cain noted numerous studies have found open-office spaces impair memory, increase stress, and reduce private conversations between colleagues. In many ways, these spaces inhibit the very collaboration they were meant to encourage.
How to survive in open spaces.
If you don’t work in a company like Pixar that can afford to design its own building, allowing for open and closed spaces for work, here are some other ideas you can suggest to leaders.
Encourage the implementation of quiet hours in the morning so introverts (and extroverts too) can concentrate on their own projects without interruption. Noise-canceling headsets are also helpful to cut out noise if you can’t get quiet hours. They also become a symbol of privacy, giving others the notion you need some time alone.
Another idea is to stay home and avoid the open-office space altogether. People with flexible work could be allowed to work remotely or work at different hours. Collaboration doesn’t have to suffer if workers aren’t in the office or work different hours. These workers can easily share ideas over email, instant messaging, or online chat.
Open-office spaces are meant to encourage collaboration. However, having the entire workspace devoted to collaboration is not beneficial to most workers, especially introverts. If you’re an introvert, don’t despair, find a way to gently encourage your company to change the work style to suit your need for quiet and less stimulating environments.