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How an introvert can thrive in the open-plan office

09 Mar 2017  |  People  |  Design

Open-plan working is today seen as the most popular and effective workplace design, certainly in this country and also across the world.

However, although the majority of UK workplaces are now designed in this way, the 2016 Gensler UK Workplace Survey showed that traditional open-plan offices do not offer variety or choice, nor are they tailored to specific tasks and practices. The report found that 70 per cent of employees are forced to work in the same place throughout the day. The impact of this lack of choice meant that only 33 per cent of respondents to the survey said they felt energised at the end of the day.

Open-plan spaces are created to promote collaboration and teamwork with the intention of leading to enhanced productivity – this is all very well for the extrovert personality type, which prospers in this noisy and buzzy environment. But about the introvert in the workplace who finds it difficult to concentrate and gets overwhelmed by the constant activity?

In her book, ‘Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’, Susan Cain discusses how the ‘typical’ worker is generally assumed to be outgoing and extrovert, and how this assumption can put unnecessary pressure on the introvert: “[The] extrovert ideal – the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight. When introverts act like extroverts, it’s very stressful. It’s not their natural behaviour. It takes a lot of effort and results in them having less mental and physical stamina available to do their work.”

Psychologist Elaine Aron describes those with an introverted nature as a ‘highly sensitive person’ or ‘HSP’, and says this personality type means they react distinctly to their environment, with a heightened awareness of emotions, responding more intensely to loud noises and other sensory stimuli. She goes onto say that although HSPs are extremely valuable workers, today’s typical office set up is completely at odds with their working and thinking styles.

To truly get the most from an introverted employee, and to make them feel most comfortable in the workplace, Susan Cain suggests: “Instead of providing only open-plan work settings, organisations should create settings in which people are free to circulate in a shifting kaleidoscope of interactions, and then be able to disappear into private spaces when they want to focus or simply be alone.”

The Gensler report findings confirm this assumption, noting that effective workplaces must support both the needs of the individual as well as the overall team, so businesses adopting an open-plan strategy must provide a balanced environment of spaces for concentration and collaboration.

Here in our London Bridge office, we designed our open-plan space to be agile and flexible, with various different working areas for individuals to choose from throughout the day. Acoustic pods allow space for small teams to hold meetings in without disturbing others working nearby.

In the canteen space, ‘The Larder’, a large dining table is available for groups wanting to eat together as well as smaller booths for those wanting a smaller, more private space for lunch or coffee.

A quiet zone with individual desks provides a solitary area for concentration and privacy for those who need it. All the desks there, as are the majority of the workstations in the office, are hot-desks, to discourage land-grabbing and allow for this flexible method of working.

Different personality types can each contribute many valuable things to a workplace if the environment allows them to do so. By creating a flexible space and giving employees the power to decide how they work, those with a quiet and introverted nature can thrive in an open-plan space.

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