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« Distractions, part 3 or “Knock Twice and Barge In!” | Main | Focus on Focus »

The Unsung Office Hero

With startling consistency, predictions of the future workplace envision open, densely populated office environments full of constant interaction, collaboration, and teamwork. In this vision of tomorrow, the cubicle and private office are extinct, and dynamic, barrier-free workplace layouts spur innovation and push employees to perform at their highest levels. That’s great if you’re an extrovert who feels comfortable spending the majority of the day interacting with colleagues, but for the estimated 25 percent* of the population who are introverts, that future workplace is a daunting prospect.

In a business culture that places a premium on teamwork and communication as the perceived route to innovation, the assertive, outgoing, group-work-loving extrovert is king. They’re natural self-marketers, they network well, they talk openly and often about what they’re working on, and they thrive in group situations. In fact, the traits of the extrovert seem so overwhelmingly suited to today’s workplace, a company might well wonder why they should even bother with introverts. Does an introvert have any value to offer?

The answer is yes, quite a lot actually, but current thinking about workplace design neglects to consider the differences between introverts and extroverts. These two groups communicate, lead and work in very different ways, and Gensler’s ongoing research into workplace design via the firm’s Workplace Performance IndexTM (WPI) has revealed that their differences merit increased attention. Recent articles in The New York Times and The Atlantic indicate that open workplaces are causing friction and leading more and more people to challenge the notion that open office work plans sufficiently serve the needs of diverse people.**

In the global knowledge economy, teamwork and communication are important skills, but so are critical thinking, intelligence, wisdom and creativity—traits commonly associated with introverts. Like their extroverted counterparts, introverts can add enormous value in today’s workplace, but their contributions are too often overlooked. Introverts are more reserved but are also typically more patient, focused, calm, and detail oriented. Introverts are also keen and critical observers. They don’t form relationships as quickly or easily as extroverts, but their relationships tend to be deeper and long lasting.

Introversion and extroversion exist on a spectrum, and people exhibit traits associated with each in varying degrees. One of the simplest ways of understanding the differences between these two groups is noting that extroverts derive energy from being around other people while introverts energize in solitude. The catch-22 for workplace design is that what constitutes a productive setting for one employee may exhaust another and vice versa, and current trends in office design are not positioning introverts to perform at their best.

More and more workplace strategies are turning to open-office layouts as a path to constant collaboration. This may be fine for the extrovert who thrives on interaction, but placing an introvert in a dense, open-office plan is like having a marathon runner carry a 25-pound weight. The runner might be able to do it, but he or she won’t be performing at their best — they’ll go slower, get tired quicker, their form will be bad, and they just won’t enjoy it much.

It’s also important to note that even the most extroverted worker needs time to withdraw from the crowd, put his head down and focus. Many open office plans can hinder workers’ ability to so, and there are signs that the “extroverted” workplace is having negative impacts for all workers, not just introverts. Record low levels of employee engagement, record highs in the desire to change jobs, record stress and poor health, and most tellingly, the ever-increasing percentage of people turning to places other than the office to get work done highlight this conflict.

Our own WPI database reveals people’s frustration with the inability of open office to support individual focus work, the work mode that top-performing companies consider the most critical to their work—50 percent more critical than collaboration—and in which employees at top-performing engage for the majority of their work day. We’ve also learned that when individual focus work isn’t supported, the effectiveness of collaboration suffers.

When companies are struggling to fully leverage their resources to compete on a global scale and differentiate themselves from myriad competitors, it makes no sense to handicap some of the brightest, high-potential contributors by taking away their ability to focus while at work. The next step in the evolution of workplace design is to not only recognize, but to embrace the fact that two people who hold the same job may need different spaces to perform. This isn’t a problem; it is an opportunity.

By shifting our design strategies to include a “focus on focus,” we acknowledge the diversity of the contemporary workplace and the fact that designing with a one space fits all mentality does a disservice to many people. In addition to designing for different genders, age groups, ethnic backgrounds, et cetera, designing for both the introvert and the extrovert will provide workplace strategies that meet the most needs.

*Estimates of incidence of introversion in the general population vary from 25 percent to as much as 50 percent, but most tend to fall around 25 percent.

**Read the post on this subject by our Executive Director Diane Hoskins

Erik Lucken
Erik Lucken has played many roles in the design industry— from architecture, interiors and strategy to research, marketing and communications. For the last decade he has studied the intersection of business performance and the built environment, and now leverages his unique range of experience to help clients identify workplace design opportunities through unconventional insights into people, place, policy and process. Contact him at erik_lucken@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (4)


Excellent post. Have you read "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking"? I'm reading it right now and it is really compelling.

As an ambivert forced to work into open offices for 8 years, I'm very happy to have a door again.

Quoted in The Atlantic:

"Collaborative Workspaces: Not All They're Cracked Up to Be"
03.7.2012 | Unregistered CommenterKevin Derrick
I absolutely agreee with this trend.
Creativity needs isolation to foster ideas, a chance to ponder the question or problem, test assumptions and experiment
As an introvert, I find that it is looked uponin the office as a negative rather than a positve characteristic of a person.
You don't need to scream, act like a desaigner or be best friend to everyone in the room to be a leader of creativity.
Thanks for the article!
03.16.2012 | Unregistered CommenterRobert
Nice! Interesting detail that I have been looking for on the Internet and that I found in your post. You made my day ;-)
07.17.2012 | Unregistered CommenterSEO Reseller

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