Designing for introverts and extroverts

28 Aug 2018  |  People  |  Design

Looking at many modern workplaces, it’s easy to conclude that contemporary office design reflects a certain bias towards extroverts – the energetic movers and shakers who like to be seen and heard. Open-plan spaces make it easy for such people to move around, communicate and make their presence felt.

But what of those who work best when they are able to focus and concentrate, free of noise and distraction? Isn’t their contribution equally valuable? How are their needs being met?

It’s generally accepted that people with introvert personalities make up between 30 and 50 per cent of the population, which carries through to the workplace. Yet according to an article in the Harvard Business Review, 96 per cent of managers and executives self-identify as extrovert. This certainly suggests that extrovert personalities are seen as desirable, and that the contemporary workplace is geared to their needs.

In her influential book ‘Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’, Susan Cain claims that the tendency to place more value on extroverts is forcing introverts to behave like extroverts in order to survive in a corporate culture. This is stressful, she points out, and results in many employees performing below their best.

Some might say that modern offices designed to support agile working already cater for those who desire the freedom to work in their own way. Designers are increasingly creating flexible environments suited to the needs of different activities and groups of employees, from hot desks and touchdown areas for mobile workers to bright, energetic spaces for creative teams.

But is there a case for taking this to a deeper level, accounting for individual personality and psychology?

It’s easy to make assumptions about employees. Sales and marketing teams, for example, are regarded as lively and extrovert, thriving on noise and energy and proximity to other people. Creative teams are thought to require space to pace and talk and brainstorm. Those working behind the scenes, on the other hand, are assumed to require peace and quiet to concentrate.

There may be some truth in these stereotypes, but perhaps the reality is more subtle. Maybe it’s not about what you do so much as the type of person you are. Collaboration, for example, may mean different things to different people. An extrovert may expect a big table in a wide-open space, while an introvert might want a huddle space, protected from distraction and noise.

Sometimes people might simply need a place to retreat, to think, to regroup. They might be wrestling with a thorny issue or having a bad day.

One solution is to ensure an office scheme incorporates quiet space. Concepts such as ‘hubs’ and ‘neighborhoods’ can be helpful, catering for different needs within an open, unified layout. Pods and booths allow people to meet one-to-one and make private calls. Small meeting rooms or ‘hideaways’ with good soundproofing can provide a calm place to meet, work and talk away from office bustle.

Furniture can also provide a solution. Flexible furnishings such as mobile acoustic screens and foldable tables and chairs can quickly transform a space from open and sociable to quiet and private and back again. Mobile partitions in homely materials such as wood can counteract the sense of exposure some might feel in an open environment with lots of glazing. Add-on panels can help avoid eye contact and convey the message ‘do not disturb’.

It’s not about helping people to cut themselves off. Collaboration and communication are rightly regarded as key factors in corporate success. It’s about enabling every employee to perform at their best. It’s about employers showing that they value their quiet thinkers as much as their energetic extroverts. And that has to be a good thing.

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