Susan Cain is not depressed. She’s deep in thought, with her elbow on her desk, head resting on her hands. Yet colleagues would regularly come up to her and ask if she was okay. She was fine, she’d explain, just very focused. "For people to work best, they need choice," says Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.
Employees work best when they can move freely back and forth between quiet and more social spaces, she says. Cain cites psychologist Russell Geen’s research that gave introverts and extroverts math problems to complete with varying levels of noise in the background. The groundbreaking study found introverts performed better with soft background noise while extroverts did better with louder background noise.
Here are three reasons Cain says business owners should consider changing their workspace design to accommodate introverts:
"Introverts like being around people, [but] they want to do a deep dive in their work," Cain says. "[They want to] focus, get in a state of flow, with deep thoughts." In an open workspace, you’re subject to interruption, such as a tap on the shoulder, which breaks your concentration, Cain notes. Having a workspace that allows introverts to go into a private, quiet room is a social signal, letting others know the person doesn’t wish to be interrupted, she says.
Traditional open office space is difficult because conversations can be overheard, Cain says. In order to speak candidly, people need to have some degree of privacy, she says. In her book, Cain suggests friendships are formed in these moments. Having a space where one or two people can work quietly, yet have some privacy, is important, Cain says.
In 2011, the Huffington Post made news when it installed two nap rooms (Napquest I and Napquest II) in its offices to allow writers and editors a quiet, private place to recharge. (Due to popular demand, a third’s been added.) People may have been intimidated to use them at first, but once Arianna Huffington and her team used them, that signaled it was okay, and other employees signed up, Cain notes.
As for a downside, Cain says there isn’t one. "I don’t see any drawbacks to a workspace that gives people choice," she says.
In her earlier example, a furrowed brow or frown would imply anger as opposed to deep thought. Having a workspace where you didn’t have to worry about managing others’ perceptions based on your facial expressions allows people to focus on their work, Cain says.
So, how does a company go about creating these spaces? It doesn’t require a full-scale remodel, Cain says. Most businesses can find spaces within their general layout.
The key is to create nooks and crannies for employees to transition into and out of, Cain says. A cozy, inviting environment where you have permission to be yourself, she explains. The spaces can be personalized with various seating options (table and chairs, couch, benches, depending on the space) and lighting.
In June, Cain is teaming up with furniture manufacturer Steelcase to introduce a series of workspace solutions tailored to introverts.
Introverts are often stigmatized, and Cain’s working to set the record straight. "[There’s a] myth of what a team player is—introverts want to do great work for the greater good, but they need a place to have uninterrupted thought," she says.
[Image: Flickr user David Wall]