Not too long ago, we’d all come to work, sit in our place, do our job, and then go home. It was usually more private–and more introvert-friendly. Today, up to five generations of people now work shoulder to shoulder, in conjunction with uncountable new tools. And they’re giving rise to all sorts of new workplaces and working styles–creating complex and often rambunctious environments.
Those changes pose particular challenges to the introverts among us. Rising emphasis on productivity, collaboration, flexible work hours–some of these solutions just don’t square with more reserved personalities.
At the same time, it’s worth mentioning that introverts aren’t always what people think. For one thing, being introverted is sometimes more about how we recharge our personal batteries when we aren’t working, and less about how we actually work. For instance, an introvert might read a book or watch TV in their downtime, while an extrovert’s more likely to make plans with a bunch of friends.
But those preferences can translate into working habits, too. Introverts might rather take notes or make a to-do list than plow through a backlog of phone calls or emails, interacting with people. On balance, our working lives today are more public and collaborative, meaning introverts need to adapt. There’s a real incentive for employers to pitch in, too, since some research suggests happy employees are 22% more productive than unhappy ones.
So how can introverted employees and their employers alike make the modern workplace more introvert-friendly? Here are four steps each can take.
Is your workplace space too noisy? Get a set of headphones or a good headset for making calls. When you aren’t on a call, play a “rushing river” track or some other ambient sound. If you can work with music playing, pick what you want to hear and play that. The background chatter disappears.
There’s nothing wrong with taking quiet time when you need it. “Don’t assume that an introvert lunching alone is lonely,” New York consultant Nancy Ancowitz, who coaches introverts on self-promotion strategies, tells me. That’s sometimes just how an introvert’s battery gets recharged.
Coworkers are prone to interrupt you if you don’t signal that you’d rather they didn’t. Wearing headphones can help. I once hung an old radio station “ON AIR” sign on the wall. But unless you’re okay getting a few stares from your colleagues, I recommend the headphones.
Just going to work, sitting down at your desk, and staying put is the old way of working. The workplaces of the future throw that approach out the window. It’s more about agility and making the most productive use of each moment–a standing meeting here, a conference call there, a working lunch at midday. It’s just a matter of going where you can be most productive for each task–even if that means working for an hour in a quiet corner in an empty lunchroom or on a bench outside.
Organizations can also help introverted employees as they design their workplaces for the future. These next four tips are for those looking to make their organizations a bit more introvert-friendly.
Do your homework and get to know your employees before making changes. Employees with all sorts of different temperaments can still be equally valuable. Some prefer private spaces while others thrive on frequent, open interaction. Do what’s best for your organization and your employees.
Both introverts and extroverts can benefit from access to private spaces where they can concentrate, have confidential conversations, or just unwind. Make sure those spaces are outfitted with the tools (like phones and wifi) and furniture so employees can take full advantage of them. Variety and simplicity are two watchwords of workplace design as our office culture continues to evolve.
Consider creating designated “huddle” rooms–a cross between a traditional shared office and a small conference room. They’re made for smaller groups, equipped with basic video and audio technology, and are great for remote meetings and impromptu brainstorms. Sometimes you don’t need a big gathering around a conference table, but a powwow around someone’s desk won’t cut it either. This gives you something in between where introverts in particular might feel more at ease.
Equipped and decorated by the “owner,” but available to others when the owner’s traveling or working remotely. This way, when a quiet desk is free, someone who needs a bit more space to themselves can use it temporarily. Good for the introvert, good for the organization!
Jeffrey Rodman is the cofounder and chief evangelist of Polycom, which develops collaborative communication technology.