How To Design A Better Office For Both Introverts And Extroverts

Could a “palette of place” give workers control and choice over where and how they work? One company goes deep into work space.

Ask workers what bugs them most about the office, and chances are they’ll tell you they can’t concentrate or focus on their work.


At Steelcase, we regularly survey workers from diverse industries, job types, locations and age groups about their workplace satisfaction, and for years the number one issue has stayed the same: 95.3% of workers say having “access to quiet, private places for concentrated work” is important, but over 41% say they don’t have them. That’s a big problem for all workers, but especially for introverts (estimated at one-third to half of the population), who recharge their batteries by being alone. It’s an even bigger issue for organizations that employ both introverts and extroverts and who need to leverage the strengths of all workers as they strive to be more innovative and nimble in a competitive climate.

Several factors contribute to this lack of quiet and privacy, regardless of whether we’re wired more toward intro- or extroversion. The shift toward mobile work has left tribes of nomads with limited options for concentrated work. Sometimes the local coffee shop is a great option, at least for anonymity, but even the best ear buds can’t tune out those toddlers at the next table. And our technology devices are a constant source of interruption, constantly tugging at us for attention. Places that used to be our last refuge for privacy, like our homes, and even our bedrooms, have become extensions of our workplaces, where interruptions can barge in with a single alert or silly ringtone. Perhaps the biggest culprit is actually our quest for interaction and collaboration–both of which are critical components of innovation and essential to high-performance companies. The pitfall for some organizations is the assumption that group work is the exclusive means to an innovative end. Design some cool-looking collaboration areas in the middle of an open office plan, with lots of traffic from nearby workers, throw in some beanbag chairs or fake grass floor covering and brilliant ideas will spontaneously erupt . . . right?

Sometimes. For some people. Take my colleague Katie, for instance, who draws energy and motivation from groups of people and lots of stimuli. Testing as an extrovert on quizzes from both authors Susan Cain (Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking) and Daniel Pink (To Sell is Human), she is happiest among a big group of boisterous creative types, with lots of sensory stimulation. You’ll often find her working in the café, interacting with a variety of people as she works on a new idea. But even Katie has moments when she needs to get away and focus, either alone or with a small group.

Conversely, another colleague, Uli, thrives when she has access to areas where she can control the sensory stimulation, eliminate noise disruptions, and engage in deep, focused work. When it’s time for the team to come together, she’s ready to contribute new ideas and participate in a group session to iterate and create. As for me, I’m a confirmed ambivert. It depends on a variety of factors: the type of work I’m doing, the tools I need, or the mood I’m in. Some days, I get my best thinking done when surrounded by people and activity. Other times, I need walls with full acoustical seals that shield me from disruptions (plus ear buds, for good measure).

Check out Drake Baer’s recent look at how organizations can benefit from embracing qualities of both introverts and extroverts. And recall that Cain struck a nerve within the corporate world by drawing attention to the needs of introverts and challenging the notion that creativity and innovation come exclusively from boisterous socialization. Cain makes the case that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption and notes that even extroverts need time for contemplation and focused, individual work. Our research at Steelcase corroborates this point–we all need time to ourselves. To read. To think. To reflect.

The point is, whether you’re an extrovert or introvert, we can’t expect workplaces designed with a cookie-cutter approach to help us do our best work. We need a range of spaces that are created for both group and individual work, some that are assigned and others shared. Some in the middle of activity, and others tucked out of the way. At Steelcase, we call it a “palette of place” that offers workers control and choice over where and how they work. It is organized in zones for different kinds of work that allow people to amp up or down the degree of sensory stimulation they want, and to signal their level of availability for interaction. It doesn’t require any more space than a conventional office and can actually use real estate more efficiently.


Providing sensory control is critical to employee well-being, especially for introverts who are more sensitive to stimuli. It’s important to integrate spaces that encourage people to retreat from the structure of the day, to renew and rest or gain fresh perspective. Employees should be able to control lighting, sound, and temperature, work in relaxed lounge or resting postures, and be free of interruptions. It’s equally important to provide spaces that allow workers to feel a physical connection with others, even when working alone.

One of our clients, Vodafone, created a space called Club 11 in their Amsterdam office that offers food, an outdoor terrace, and upbeat music. It’s fun and functional, but you wouldn’t mistake it for a library or choose it when you need quiet focus. The space for that is actually called the library, located in another zone, and one of the few places with rules about how people work: talking and phone calls are not allowed.

At Skype’s Palo Alto offices, collaboration is nurtured, and workers sit at benches that allow for an easy exchange of ideas. Yet, headphones are the respected way of signaling “leave me alone, I’m thinking,” and the company also offers a variety of small, private places for individuals who need quiet and less stimulation.

We recently opened a new WorkCafé in our Grand Rapids, Michigan, headquarters, a space designed with a coffee shop vibe that is a great spot not only for eating but for all kinds of work–social, learning, collaboration, as well as focused. We found that 80% of our employees choose it for individual work at least some of the time. They know they might be interrupted, but they prefer to be near others.

Extroverts and introverts have plenty in common: They both need to feel like they’re connected to other people and to the organization. They also need quiet places where they can focus, reflect or recharge–it just might be in different degrees. Ultimately, they need workplaces with a range of spaces that allow them to choose what works best for them.

Chris Congdon is director of global research communications for Steelcase Inc.. Follow her on Twitter at @cscongdon.


[Images courtesy of Steelcase]